Tangles of pathology

Trilemmas are always fun. Let’s do one. You may pick two, but no more than two, of the following:

  • Liberalism
  • Inequality
  • Nonpathology

By “liberalism”, I mean a social order in which people are free to do as they please and live as they wish, in which everyone is formally enfranchised by a political process justified in terms of consent of the governed and equality of opportunity.

By “inequality”, I mean high dispersion of economic outcomes between individuals over full lifetimes. [1]

By “nonpathology”, I mean the absence of a sizable underclass within which institutions of social cohesion — families (nuclear and extended), civic and religious organizations — function poorly or at best patchily, in which conflict and violence are frequent and economic outcomes are poor. From the inside, a pathologized underclass perceives itself as simultaneously dysfunctional and victimized. From the outside, it is viewed culturally and/or morally deficient, and perhaps inferior genetically. Whatever its causes and whomever is to blame, pathology itself is a real phenomenon, not just a matter of false perception by dominant groups.

This trilemma is not a logical necessity. It is possible to imagine a liberal society that is very unequal, in which rich and poor alike make the best of their circumstances without clumping into culturally distinct groupings, in which shared procedural norms render the society politically stable despite profound quality of life differences between winners and losers. But I think empirically, no such thing has existed in the world, and that no such thing ever will given how humans actually behave.

It’s easy to find examples of societies with any two of liberalism, inequality, and nonpathology. You can have inequality in feudal or caste-based societies without pathology. The high castes may well perceive the low castes as inferior, and the low castes may regret their circumstances. But with the hierarchy sustained by overt force and a dominant ideology of staying in place, there is no need for pathology. Families and religious organizations in the lower castes might be strong, there may be little internal conflict, and no perception inside or outside the low status group that they are violating the norms of their society. There are simply overt and customary relations of domination and subordination. This was the situation of slaves in the American South prior to emancipation. They faced an unhappy and unjust circumstance, but a straightforward one. Whatever instabilities of family life or institutional deficiencies slaves endured were overtly forced upon them, and cannot reasonably be attributed to pathologies of the community, particularly given the experience of early Reconstruction. (More on this below.)

Contemporary Nordic countries do a fair job of combining liberalism and nonpathology. But that is only possible because they constitute unusually equal societies.

The United States today, of course, chooses liberalism and inequality, and so, I claim, it cannot survive without pathology. Why not? In a liberal society, humans segregate into groups based on economic circumstance. Economic losers become geographically and socially concentrated, and are not persuaded by the gloats of economic winners that outcomes were procedurally fair and should be quietly accepted. Unequal outcomes are persistent. As an empirical matter we know there is never very much rank-order economic mobility in unequal societies (nor should we expect or even wish that there would be). That should not be surprising, because the habits and skills and connections and resources that predict economic success will be disproportionately available within the self-segregated communities of winners. So, even if we stipulate for some hypothetical first generation that outcomes were procedurally fair, outcomes for future generations will be very strongly biased towards class continuity. Equality of opportunity cannot coexist with inequality of outcome unless the political community forcibly and illiberally integrates winners and losers (and perhaps not even then). But an absence of equality of opportunity is incompatible with the political basis of liberal society. If numerous losers are enfranchised and well-organized, they will seek and achieve redress (redistribution of social and economic goods and/or forced integration), or else the society must drop its pretense of liberalism and disenfranchise the losers, or at least concede the emptiness of any claim to legitimacy based on equality of opportunity.

Pathology permits a circumvention of this dilemma. It enables a reconciliation of equal opportunity with persistently skewed outcomes by claiming that persistent losers simply fail to seize the opportunities before them, as a result of their individual and communal deficiencies. Conflict within and between communities and the chaos of everyday life reduce the likelihood that even a very numerous pathologized underclass will effectively dispute the question politically. Conflict and “broken institutions” also serve as ipso facto explanations for sub-par outcomes. If the losers are sufficiently pathologized, it is possible to reconcile a liberal society with severe inequality. If they are not, the contradictions become difficult to paper over.

This may seem a very functional and teleological, some might even say conspiratorial, account of social pathology. It’s one thing to argue that it would be convenient, from an amoral social stability perspective, for the losers in an unequal society to behave in ways that appear from the perspective of winners to be pathological and that prevent losers from organizing to press a case the might upset the status quo. It’s another thing entirely to assert that so convenient a pathology would actually arise. After all, humans flourish when they belong to stable families, when they participate in civic and professional organizations, and when their communities are not riven by conflict and violence. Why would the combination of liberalism, inequality, and pathology be stable, when the underclass community could simply opt out of behaving pathologically?

Individual communities can opt out. Some do. But unless those communities embrace norms that eschew conventional socioeconomic pecking orders and/or political engagement with the larger polity (e.g. the Amish), it is entirely unstable for those nonpathological communities to remain underclass in a liberal polity. Suppose there were a community constituted of stable, traditional families. Its members were diligent, forward-looking, and hardworking, pursued education and responded to labor market incentives. And suppose this community was politically engaged, pressing its perspective and interests in government at all levels. In a liberal polity, it is just not supportable for such a community to remain a socioeconomic underclass. One of two things may happen: the community may press its case with the liberal establishment, identify barriers to the success of its members and work politically to overcome them, and eventually integrate into the affluent “middle class”. But if all underclass communities were to succeed in this way, there could be no underclass at all, there would be a massive decrease in inequality. Nonpathology requires equality. Alternatively, if severe inequality is going to continue, then there must remain some sizable contingent of people who are socioeconomic losers, who will as a matter of economic necessity become segregated into less-desirable neighborhoods, who will come to form new communities with social identities, which must be pathological for their poverty to be stable. Particular communities can opt out of pathology, but it is a fallacy of composition to suggest that that all communities can opt out of pathology in a polity that will remain both liberal and unequal.

If a society is, at a certain moment in time, deeply unequal, then pathology among the poor is required if status quo winners are to preserve their place, which, under sufficient dispersion of circumstance, can become a nearly existential concern for them. Consider the perspective of a liberal and well-intentioned member of the wealthy ruling elite of a poor, developing country. To “live as ordinary citizens live” would entail renouncing civilized life as she understands it. It would entail becoming a kind of barbarian. I don’t think the perspective of elites in less extreme but still unequal developed countries is all that different. Liberal elites need not and do not set about intentionally manufacturing pathology. They simply manage the arrangement of political and social institutions with a shared, tacit, and perfectly natural understanding that their own reduction to barbarism would count as a bad policy outcome and should be avoided. The set of policy arrangements consistent with this red line just happens to be disjoint from the set of arrangements under which there would not exist pathologized communities. Elite non-barabarism depends upon inequality, upon a highly skewed distribution of consumption and of the insurance embedded in financial claims, which must have justification. Elite non-barbarism may also depend very directly on the availability of cheap, low-skill labor. Liberal elites may be perfectly sincere in their handwringing at the state of the pathologized poor, laudable in their desire to “discover solutions”. Consider The Brookings Institution. But, under the constraints elites tacitly place on the solution space, the problems really are insoluble. The best a liberal policy apparatus can do is to resort to a kind of clientism in which the pathology of the underclass is handwrung and bemoaned, but nevertheless acknowledged as the cause and justification for continued disparity. Instruction (however futile) and a stigmatized means-tested “safety net” are sufficient to signal elites’ good intentions to themselves and absolve them of any need to revise their self-perceptions as civilized and liberal.

If pathology is necessary, it is also easy to get. Self-serving (mis)perceptions of pathology by elites of a poor community become self-fulfilling. Elites fearful of a “pathological” community will be more cautious about collaborating with their members economically, or hiring them. Privately, employers will subject members of the allegedly pathological community to more monitoring, impose more severe punishments based on less stringent evidence than they would upon members of communities that they trust. Publicly, concern over a community’s perceived pathology will translate to more intensive policing and laws or norms that de facto give authorities a freer hand among communities perceived to be pathological. Holding behavior constant, police attention creates crime, and a prevalence of high crime is ipso facto evidence of pathology. Of course, as pathology develops, behavior may not remain constant. Intensive monitoring (public and private) and the “positives” resulting from extra scrutiny justify ever more invasive monitoring and interference by authorities, which leads the monitored communities to very reasonably distrust formal authority. Cautiousness among employers contributes to economic precarity within the monitored community. Communities that distrust formal authority are like tiny failed statelets. Informal protection rackets arise to fill roles that formal authority no longer can. If no hegemon arises then these protection rackets become competitive and violent — “gangs!” — which constitute yet more clear evidence of pathology to outsiders. Economic precarity and employment disadvantage render informal and illicit economic activity disproportionately attractive, leading mechanically to more crime and sometimes quite directly to pathology, because some activities are illicit for a reason (e.g. heroin use). The mix of economic precarity and urban density loosens male attachment to families, a fact which has been observed not only recently and here but over centuries and everywhere, which increases poverty among women and children and engenders cross-generational pathology. Poverty itself becomes pathology within communities unable to pool risk beyond direct, also-poor acquaintances. Behavior that is perfectly rational for the atomized poor — acquiescence to unpleasant tradeoffs under conditions of crisis — appear pathological to affluent people who “would never make those choices” because they would never face those circumstances.

About a year ago, there was a rather extraordinary conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] At a certain point, Chait argues that the experience of white supremacy and brutality would naturally have left “a cultural residue” that might explain what some contemporary observers view as pathology. Coates responds:

What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily “bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”? Chait believes that it’s “bizarre” to think otherwise. I think it’s bizarre that he doesn’t bother to see if his argument is actually true. Oppression might well produce a culture of failure. It might also produce a warrior spirit and a deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you. There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable.

There certainly is no era more oppressive for black people than their 250 years of enslavement in this country. Slavery encompassed not just forced labor, but a ban on black literacy, the vending of black children, the regular rape of black women, and the lack of legal standing for black marriage. Like Chait, 19th-century Northern white reformers coming South after the Civil War expected to find “a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.”

In his masterful history, Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner recounts the experience of the progressives who came to the South as teachers in black schools. The reformers “had little previous contact with blacks” and their views were largely cribbed from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They thus believed blacks to be culturally degraded and lacking in family instincts, prone to lie and steal, and generally opposed to self-reliance:

Few Northerners involved in black education could rise above the conviction that slavery had produced a “degraded” people, in dire need of instruction in frugality, temperance, honesty, and the dignity of labor … In classrooms, alphabet drills and multiplication tables alternated with exhortations to piety, cleanliness, and punctuality.

In short, white progressives coming South expected to find a black community suffering the effects of not just oppression but its “cultural residue.”

Here is what they actually found:

During the Civil War, John Eaton, who, like many whites, believed that slavery had destroyed the sense of family obligation, was astonished by the eagerness with which former slaves in contraband camps legalized their marriage bonds. The same pattern was repeated when the Freedmen’s Bureau and state governments made it possible to register and solemnize slave unions. Many families, in addition, adopted the children of deceased relatives and friends, rather than see them apprenticed to white masters or placed in Freedmen’s Bureau orphanages.

By 1870, a large majority of blacks lived in two-parent family households, a fact that can be gleaned from the manuscript census returns but also “quite incidentally” from the Congressional Ku Klux Klan hearings, which recorded countless instances of victims assaulted in their homes, “the husband and wife in bed, and … their little children beside them.”

This, I think, is a biting takedown of one theory of social pathology, that it arises as a sort of community-psychological reaction to trauma, an explanation that is simultaneously exculpatory and infantilizing. The “tangle of pathology” that Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously attributed to the black community did not refer to people newly freed from brutal chattel slavery in the late 1860s. It did not refer even to people in the near-contemporary Jim Crow South, people overtly subjugated by state power and threatened with cross-burnings and lynchings. No, the Moynihan report referred specifically to “urban ghettos”, mostly in the liberal North. The black community endured, in poverty and oppression but largely without “pathology”, precisely where it remained oppressed most overtly. For a brief period during Reconstruction, the contradictions between imported liberalism, non-negotiable inequality, and a not-all-at-pathological community of freedman flared uncomfortably bright. But before long (after, Coates points out, literal coups against the new liberal order), the South reverted to the balance it had always chosen, sacrificing liberalism for overt domination which permitted both inequality and a black community that lived “decently” according to prevailing norms but was kept unapologetically in its place.

Social pathology may be pathological for specific affected communities, but it is adaptive for the societies in which it arises. Like markets, pathology constitutes a functional solution to the problem of reconciling the necessity of social control with liberalism, which disavows many overt forms of coercion. A liberal society is a market society, because if identifiable authorities aren’t going to tell people what to do and force them, if necessary, to act, then a faceless, quasinatural market must do so. A liberal, unequal society “suffers from social pathology”, because the communities into which its losers collect must be pathological to remain so unequal. No claims are made here about causality. It is possible that some communities of people are, genetically or by virtue of some preexisting circumstance, prone to pathology, and pathology engenders inequality. It is possible that dispersion of economic outcomes is in some sense “prior”, and then absence of pathology becomes inconsistent with important social stability goals. Our trilemma is an equilibrium constraint, not a narrative. Whichever way you like to tell the story, a liberal society whose social arrangements would be badly upset by egalitarian outcomes must have pathology to sustain its underclass. The less consistent the requirements of civilized life among elites are with egalitarian outcomes, the greater the scale of pathology required to support the dispersion. That, fundamentally, is what all the handwringing in books like Coming Apart and Our Kids is about.

[1] We’ll be more directly concerned with “bottom inequality”, or “relative poverty” in OECD terms, rather than “top inequality” (the very outsized incomes of the top 0.1% or 0.001%).


The figure is from Comparative Welfare State Politics by Kerbergen and Vis.

Broadly speaking, top inequality is most relevant with respect to political and macroeconomic aspects of inequality (secular stagnation, plutocracy), while bottom inequality most directly touches social issues like family structure, labor market connectedness, social stratification, etc. Top and bottom inequality are obviously related, though the connection is not mechanical in a financial economy in which monetary claims can be created ex nihilio and the connection between monetary income and use or acquisition of real resources is loose.


23 Responses to “Tangles of pathology”

  1. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    Notice that your definition of liberalism as necessarily including democracy, i.e. having universal enfranchisement and not just liberal individual freedoms, is doing a lot of the work here, because of the distinctive political dynamics of democracy (interest group organization, class politics, etc). A liberal non-democracy would not necessarily be subject to your trilemma. Liberal non-democracies are rare and difficult to sustain, but not unexampled (the most recent example being Hong Kong under the British protectorate).

  2. Steve Roth writes:

    I wonder if this is tautological.

    If there were no pathology (behaviors that prevent ascendance into upper classes) in lower classes, lower classes would ascend/merge into upper classes, and cease to exist.

    The definition of pathology (eg my parenthetical) seems rather crux-ial.

  3. JMR writes:

    I think that equilibrium points are a poor metaphor, because these are not binary classifications. In a liberal society, inequality and nonpathology seem inversely correlated.

    I also think the reason that this issue may be so hard to face is that there are a set of complex causes for the correlation that support both liberal and conservative points of view (and what is causality in a dynamic system?). Adversarial interactions between groups is a factor, but genetics might also make a (minor?) contribution. Path dependencies are critical (waves of immigration, slavery), but so are self-inflicted responses to those historical causes (drugs, family dissolution).

    I think, to attack these problems in the US, we will need to start with a more empathetic/collectivist worldview that doesn’t care what the causes are. And that will be a long time coming, unless it is forced upon us by circumstance.

  4. PGD writes:

    There are a lot of assumed micro-causal chains here in the background that I don’t think necessarily hold up. E.g. this statement:

    “Suppose there were a community constituted of stable, traditional families. Its members were diligent, forward-looking, and hardworking, pursued education and responded to labor market incentives. And suppose this community was politically engaged, pressing its perspective and interests in government at all levels. In a liberal polity, it is just not supportable for such a community to remain a socioeconomic underclass. One of two things may happen: the community may press its case with the liberal establishment, identify barriers to the success of its members and work politically to overcome them, and eventually integrate into the affluent “middle class”. But if all underclass communities were to succeed in this way, there could be no underclass at all, there would be a massive decrease in inequality. Nonpathology requires equality.”

    You are essentially assuming the fairness of the liberal market/democratic order here. Such a community may or may not remain an underclass, but it is entirely plausible that they will not become rich, or at least not rich enough to threaten the truly privileged in the society. You seem to assume that the privileged will somehow defend their status by coordinating to impose ‘pathology’ on this community, rather than simply blocking channels of upward mobility through the use of market power, nepotism, networks of power, etc. It seems rather more difficult to impose mass incarceration, family breakup, etc. on lower-class communities then it is to simply call your buddy the CEO and ensure that your own kid gets that junior executive job.

  5. PGD writes:

    To put it another way, you’re assuming the propaganda of the liberal market/democratic order is real. We only require ‘pathology’ to maintain the system because you assume you need to incapacitate entrants to the competitive market democratic order before they enter the system in which rewards are apportioned through market competition and democratic voice/political mobilization. Because the market and political system does fairly reward effort along competitive dimensions — education, skills, organized votes, etc. But the system is rigged in countless ways and always has been. It is pretty obvious that you can diligently go to school and turn out to vote and still not have access to the privilege of that hedge fund magnates’ kids. In your conceptual schema I suppose this would represent the liberal order transitioning away from liberalism in order to have non-pathology and inequality. But I would really question whether there ever has been a liberal order that consistently offered true upward mobility (movement up the *relative* scale) just for following the rules. The mobility on offer has generally been of the ‘rising tides lift all boats’ variety, driven by the general growth of the entire society.

  6. Evan Soltas writes:


    I worry that your trilemma is true by construction if you view inequality and pathology as mostly overlapping — then we must choose between inequality and nonpathology simply because they are near-opposites. Surely it is possible to have non-pathological inequality. But it seems very easy to see how inequality is pathologized. So this is not quite a trilemma in my view insofar as the last two are not independent.


  7. Prakash writes:

    @Nicholas, Your point is the one I’m more familiar with.

    The way I had heard of a similar trilemma was
    Democracy, Diversity, Effective Government :: Choose two.

    If you have any kind of genuine diversity (i.e. incompatible terminal goals), that is simply incompatible with democracy if you want effective government. If you have diversity and need effective government, you need to move towards some kind of autocracy – it could be a constitutional republic where the constitution is unalterably paramount. This effectively dissolves into the rule of judges, interpreting words and clauses in a new light. It could be a singapore like authoritarian capitalism.

    Democracy and effective government are cool if you have a homogenous populace like iceland or the scandinavian countries until the last 10 years or so.

    The major counterargument is switzerland, which has diversity, but they also have compulsory military service which probably overrides any previous differences, thus placing a new layer of similarity over the diversity.

  8. Harald K writes:

    Weininger: enfranchisement is a non-negotiable part of liberalism. There is no “libertas” unless you have a say in your own life. You may be a well treated slave, you’re still a slave.

    Soltas: Surely it is possible to have non-pathological inequality? Yes, under feudalism, a caste system, antebellum slavery or pharaonic rule or something similar. Under an ideology where people’s equal moral value is rejected, and the lower class on the whole accepts being assigned lower moral value. Then there is no pathology (in the limited sense Waldman uses the word).

    But no matter how much the neoreactionaries want to go back there, I think that particular genie is out of the bottle.

    In David Graeber’s “Debt”, he makes a big point out of the difference between debt slavery and regular slavery. Roughly recounted, if you’re a slave, you are told: “you are not my moral equal. This is just your lot in life. Nothing personal.” But if you’re a debt slave, you are told: “You were my moral equal, but you failed your obligations, you deserve what’s coming to you now”.

    Under slavery (or other cosmically justified moral inequality), morality and desert are rendered somewhat meaningless, and that is a consolation to those on the bottom of the ladder. “Do I deserve it or not, who can tell?”. But a society that insists that these concepts have meaning and are important (a liberal society, in Waldman’s terms), inequality leads to trouble.

  9. Dan Kervick writes:

    Maybe it doesn’t need emphasizing, but this part of the definition of liberalism is rather other-worldly:

    “… a social order in which people are free to do as they please and live as they wish”

    Liberalism is an ideological product of the enlightenment, and while that ideology has certainly had a profound effect on actual social conditions in the modern world, nothing like liberalism in the stark, pure form described in the above clause ever has existed or could exist. Organizing and maintaining societies is hard work, and requires abundant restrictions on the liberties of individuals. Some societies permit substantially more freedom of action than others within certain spheres, but even throughout the rise of liberalism, people continued building, maintaining and improving societies and socially engineering desired outcomes with mountains of positive law and regulation – and with highly capable judicial and law enforcement apparatus to back the laws up. In many cases, they successfully designed important outcomes that would never in a million years have been achieved organically as a result of people just “doing as they please”.

    I would also suggest that no human being in the history of the species has ever “lived as they wish”. Human wishes are bred in the imagination, and always greatly exceed the boundaries of the kinds of life that are actually available to be lived.

  10. Chris Peel writes:

    Over the past hundred years, violence (one pathology) has decreased, inequality has decreased, and liberalism has increased when looking at the world. You say that the trilemma is not a logical necessity; even without knowing the mechanism, one can guess that the trilemma will be solved in the next century or less, just given the track record of the past century.

  11. Arne writes:

    If force applied to maintain inequality isn’t a pathology, what is?

  12. mpr writes:

    A fascinating thesis, but I don’t buy it for the US. The pathologized underclass(es) exists, and their formation is reinforced by the dynamics you mention, but they make up maybe 20% of the population; certainly less than 50%. Most of the middle class is not pathologized, so it isn’t clear why the ‘liberal elites’ would need the pathologized bottom tranche.

    Its true that the elites don’t allow equal opportunity for most of the middle class, but this isn’t reconciled by pathology. Its reconciled by flat out denial that there is any disparity of opportunity – hence the promotion of the idea that ‘anyone can make it if they work hard’ etc, while the US now lags in actual upward mobility.

  13. hunkerdown writes:

    mpr @ 12, as SRW said, liberal elites are loath to engage in overt violence to sustain the social order. Enter the purity cult, gratuitous credentialism, and other forms of bourgeois arrogance to ensure their kind a host and to keep their own hands arguably clean.

  14. Theo writes:

    As liberalism is a philosophy of the ruling class it was and is not now envisioned as granting equality to others in the fullest sense under any conditions. It has achieved limited, piecemeal reform in a number of areas, all of which have been and are consistently under attack (through unending business, patriotic, war, and other propaganda aimed at manufacturing consent and maintaining cultural hegemony of the favored group, especially of the Manichaeistic variety, religious fanaticism, and authoritarian legislation) by its enemies on the right (the major business interests and the Republican party), which has succeeded as well in stifling the imagination of liberals themselves, never a steadfast group, so that they have collaborated in liberalism’s demise by oppressing and excluding the left, the origin in great part of its creative force, and joined the opposition out of fear and a lack of moral fiber and of course out of acceptance on the “merits” of the opposition philosophy. I too reject your definition of liberalism for the reasons given above. Liberalism has evolved naturally under these conditions of assault and the chaos brought about as a result of decades of wrong-headed foreign and economic policies into something else entirely. Liberalism is not a perfect philosophy (no such philosophy exists) and, as practiced, never could have lead to full equality for all. It was prepared to grant “this much and no more.” Liberalism is not the left and is not a radical philosophy and once represented the center but now is definitely on the right. As a result of the success of the assault on liberalism, we are left with its shell. Its so-called adherents in the political class use the language of democracy, freedom, equal rights to front a system that is illiberal and ever more authoritarian, in support of immoral foreign and domestic policies under the aegis of the banks and corporations. Its enemies also use the language of liberalism to achieve illiberal aims. All liberal societies produce some pathology, as perhaps any system does, to a greater or lesser extent depending on a great many factors not discussed in your piece. The major, largely ignored one hiding in plain site in the US and the world, other than racist oppression, the oppression of indigenous peoples, the love of militarism and war making, the persistence of profound selfishness by the ruling class of almost all societies, being the pathologies posited in women, over half the human race, and evidenced by prostitution, pornography, rape and other forms of violence, failure to support parents and their children, policies ensuring their exclusion from public life, indeed the endless deficiencies of women, posited and defended through religion, “scholarship,” propaganda, in moral reasoning, intelligence, behavior, genetic and bodily acceptability, all of which have been and still are largely accepted in practice by liberalism as well as every other system (communist societies achieved the greatest successes in the area of female equality, but still left the basic assumptions of inferiority in place). All of this while refusing to examine, other than on a very limited basis, the evident pathologies practiced by most men in support of the subjugation of women. Neither women nor racial “minorities” in the US have achieved equality, even in the face of important gains in their liberty. It is the nature of unregulated market societies as we have today to cause inequality. Some inequality will always exist in any system. Penury, lack of jobs, medical care, education, etc., etc. need not exist. They are deliberately produced by the ruling class through self-interested policies. Those segments of the population not granted access and money to the means of improving themselves, and the social supports that would make success most likely will not achieve success. Yes, there will be the occasional one who is able to overcome the most serious obstacles and achieve some level of success, but never complete acceptance. Now the ruling class offers to most only menial jobs, if those, at below subsistence rates with few or no benefits, but neither equality of opportunity nor outcome. Those goals require some coercion. Coercion/inequality are reserved by the ruling class most blatantly in the area of criminal “justice,” among other areas. In order to maintain the favored group in power, the ruling class engenders and accepts the pathology of the predator, whether sexual or economic, and provides propaganda positing the equivalence of the market and human freedom and positing the existence of pathological or deficient human beings and communities that must be oppressed and kept from any semblance of equality out of necessity for the protection of the health of the nation.

  15. […] “Tangles of pathology“ […]

  16. mpr writes:

    hunkerdown @ 13, yes but none of the things you mention seem to induce pathology in the sense that SRW is using the word. Its more like the feudal system, maintained by means other than overt violence.

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  19. I don’t like the way you identify “liberalism” with “democracy”, and “poverty” with “inequality”. Democracy is a political procedure and liberalism is a political outcome. Inequality is relative, and poverty is absolute.

  20. Nick Payne writes:

    A problem I see with a key part of your argument: you say that an exodus from pathology is an existential threat to the elite class. I think this depends on what you mean by elites. If you mean those at the top of the income distribution, I don’t think these people, in general, give much thought to the lower class. They don’t constitute the customers or acquaintances of the rich and these poor people moving to a higher standard of living does not threaten the rich. I do think the betterment of the poor threatens a different group of elites: the intellectuals, government bureaucrats, and politicians who derive their social status from their supposed concern for the poorest. I think many of these people genuinely care for the poor but do not realize their attempts to help with regulation and handouts hurts more than helps. I also suspect some of this second group of elites recognize that an effective exodus of folks from the pathological class would mean the end of their prestige.

  21. Eric Drexler writes:

    You offer a coherent but incomplete model, and such things can and do contribute to understanding even in fields as methodologically rigorous as physics. Thank you.

    Without changing its structure, your model could usefully highlight the familiar role of meritocracy in reinforcing the link between inequality and pathology: To the extent that individual capabilities differ, and meritocratic mechanisms work (standardized tests, scholarships, discerning hiring practices, workplace promotions), then the natural leaders, entrepreneurs, and role-models of communities at the bottom will be able to flee.

    Hence an ugly trilemma:

    • Merit-based economic opportunity
    • Inter-community social mobility
    • Meritorious leadership in poor communities

    Choose two.

  22. brendan writes:

    Ah, so raising up pathological groups hasn’t failed. It just hasn’t been tried yet because the rich WANT the poor to be pathological so they can’t organize politically.


    I agree that, for example, policy hasn’t helped black people much, but that’s not because of brilliant, mendacious elite coordination to maintain a libertarian paradise.

  23. Mercury writes:

    “Like markets, pathology constitutes a functional solution to the problem of reconciling the necessity of social control with liberalism, which disavows many overt forms of coercion.”

    That shows you how far apart classical liberalism now is from contemporary US ‘Liberalism’ which is all about overt coersion: how to speak, what to eat, what to drive, how to raise your kids and in general, ever more government inserted deep into every aspect of your life…for your own good of course.