Kevin Corcoran, a regular reader of EconLog posts and a frequent commenter, sent me some interesting thoughts that are worth presenting here. I’ve made some slight edits, with Kevin’s consent.

I’ll add my own example at the end. Here’s Kevin:

I had a thought recently on how the underlying idea of subjectivity of value, as understood by economists, can be usefully imported to another hot topic issue these days – the concepts of advantage and privilege.

To spell out this idea, I want to first be precise about what I mean when I talk about value being subjective. Many people use the term “subjective” to mean something like “a matter of opinion or preference,” but I mean it in a slightly different, more technical sense. Roughly, to say that a quality is “objective” is to say that it is “in the object,” whereas to say that a quality is “subjective” is to say that it is “in the subject,” as that subject relates to the object. As an example, consider a round picture frame. The fact that the frame is round is an objective quality – there is a property of roundness, and that property exists in the object itself. However, when I look at that picture frame, I might find that it looks very tacky. That quality is subjective – it exists as an internal experience of me, the subject, as I observe the picture frame. If you see the same frame and find it looks classy, that’s your subjective experience. If I say the frame is round and you say it’s square, we are contradicting each other, because we are asserting different objective properties about it. If I say it’s tacky and you say it’s classy, we are not contradicting each other, because we are simply reporting our own separate experiences as subjects. To say something is subjective isn’t quite the same as saying it’s simply a matter of opinion – if I accidentally smack my thumb with a hammer, the pain I feel will be subjective, but that doesn’t mean my thumb being in pain is just my opinion.

With all that in mind, I would also say that whether a particular condition constitutes “privilege” is also subjective – not in the sense that there are differences of opinion on how beneficial some condition is, but in the sense that whether or not a condition is beneficial varies, depending on the subject of that condition. Some might say that being good-looking is a form of privilege, as though such privilege is objective in the sense defined above. But a little reflection makes it clear that whether attractiveness is beneficial is subjective in the above sense. Thomas Sowell outlines this in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice:

As just one example, a young woman of unusual beauty may gain many things, both personal and material, from her looks, without having to develop other aspects of her mind and character. Yet when age begins to rob her of that beauty, she may be left much less able to cope than others who never had the benefit of her earlier windfall gain.

For someone like this, was natural attractiveness a net benefit or a net disadvantage? I have no idea. I can easily imagine circumstances where it could be either, depending on the person. And the same is true for almost any other condition to which privilege is usually ascribed. With a little empathy and effort, it’s very easy to see how the same set of initial conditions could be advantageous for one person but detrimental to another – even within the same family, let alone the same economic class, race, or any other category.

A personal example comes to mind. I grew up in a very low income family – something many people would immediately peg as a “disadvantage.” However, on reflection, I’m not sure that it was a disadvantage. When I was the proverbial “starving college student,” and for the first couple of years in my career after college, I found it very easy to get by on my very limited income. Because I had grown up with so little, I was able to live a very Spartan lifestyle without even a hint of feeling that I was making any difficult sacrifices. I know many people from that time who had significantly more resources available to them than I did, but who were never able to “get ahead” because cutting back in the way I did, even in the short term, was to them an unspeakable and unreasonable hardship. So, was my low-income background actually an advantage in the long run? Maybe. Or maybe I would be in an even better position now had I come from a wealthier background. I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know for sure – and neither does anyone else.

In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues that a major aspect in top down control is an attempt to make society seem more “legible” in the eyes of the planners. Reality and societies are fantastically complicated things. In order to work around this complexity, states and planners designate society in terms of broad, clear categories, with discrete boundaries separating one concept from another, in a way that doesn’t allow for (or more accurately, doesn’t acknowledge) the messy complications and complexities of reality. These broad, top down, centrally defined categories made society (seem) very “legible,” in the sense of easy to read and therefore (seemingly) easy to rearrange. But, Scott argues, this legibility was never more than an illusion – planners ended up with only a mirage of reality that was easy for them to understand, but fundamentally useless for understanding and adapting the complexities of an evolved social order. People who confidently classify all manner of conditions as objectively constituting either privilege or hindrance end up with a worldview that is very “legible” in James Scott’s sense, but far too simplistic to be of any value, or to provide any insight.


Well done, Kevin.

Now to my own example, which is a lot like Kevin’s example of growing up. My father was variously a high-school principal and a high-school teacher and we had an income that reflected that. When the Manitoba Teachers’ Society got a big raise in the mid-1960s (I think, but am not sure, that it was due to the provincialization of schooling, which gave the union more power than it had when negotiating with local school boards), by the way, our family had steak for the first time and occasionally bought butter instead of margarine. My mother made a little outside money, I’m sure undeclared, bless her heart, teaching piano. I would say that our family income was somewhere between the 45 percentile and the median income in Manitoba at that time.

We lived a little below that income because my father so badly feared another depression.

So until I was about age 10, my weekly allowance was 10 cents; in my early teens, it reached a quarter, and in my mid-teens (about 1965-66), it was $1.

But I wasn’t willing to settle. I wanted a higher income. So I earned it. From about age 7, I started collecting empty soda bottles by the road and turning them in for candy bars (each bottle was worth 1 cent in cash or 2 cents in merchandise) and then arbitraging to my mother. As I got older, I took on other tasks to make money. I could detail them here, because I’m still very proud of what I did, but I want to get to the moral of the story.

The moral of the story is that I learned to manage money at a very early age. I paid most of my way through college and emerged with zero debt. I did that by not drinking alcohol, which didn’t appeal to me; by not dating much, which was probably a mistake; and by never going to expensive events like concerts.

So, like Kevin, I think my family’s income and the choices it led my father to make for me, were an advantage. When I would teach my students the principles of Dwight Lee’s and Richard McKenzie’s book Getting Rich in America: 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life, I realized that I was simply reporting what I had figured out early in life.