Leftism and Determinism Part I

by Benjamin Studebaker

A thought occurred to me today–it is impossible to be a leftist without also being a determinist. Here’s why.

Leftists do not believe that individuals have special claims on property beyond purely what is pragmatic or efficient (and some leftists do not care about pragmatism or efficiency, either). For leftists, the only reason that it might be reasonable to pay say, a doctor more than one pays a secretary is that being a doctor requires more years of training and is, on the whole, a more difficult job. Consequently, we need to provide doctors with a larger incentive in order for the market to produce the number of doctors we require. We would never pay doctors more merely on the basis that they deserve more–leftists fundamentally disagree with the belief that anyone deserves more or less than anyone else.

A lot of policies come out of this. If we believe that no one is inherently more deserving, then the only reason to permit economic inequality is those practical reasons–the providing of incentives. This is encapsulated by Rawls’ second principle of justice:

Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls’ second principle is itself split into two parts. Here we are concerned specifically with “b”, the difference principle. The difference principle distributes benefits to the least advantaged members of society because there is no reason under Rawls and under mainstream leftism that the least advantaged deserve less than anyone else. The only thing preventing Rawls’ principles form leading to communism is the concern for maximising the benefit. Consider the following two states of affairs:


Poor Group Welfare

Rich Group Welfare

Total Welfare









By desiring the “greatest benefit of the least advantaged”, Rawls has reasons to prefer Rawlsopolis to Marxtopia. He is a prioritarian rather than an egalitarian. This is the mainstream modern leftist view we’re talking about, not the communist stuff. By insisting on absolute equality, Marxtopia creates a perversity of incentive that actually reduces standard of living for the poor. Rawlsopolis protects against this, only redistributing to the worst off insofar as this does not remove the incentive to labour.

So the question I put to the reader here is why do leftists think that everyone is equally deserving of welfare except insofar as it undermines incentive? Why is a poor person otherwise just as worthy of income as a rich person?

The right very strongly disagrees with the left on this. Remember “you didn’t build that“? The right was furious about Obama’s claim that businessmen were not personally responsible for the success of their enterprises. Obama tried to back-peddle on the comment, but he had no business doing so, because “you didn’t build that” is precisely what leftists believe. Leftists don’t think that the rich are to credit for their success or that the poor are to blame for their failures. Leftists think sociological and natural forces determine who succeeds and who fails. People who succeed benefit from genetic advantages, better parenting, better education, more opportunity, more help from the state, and so on. People who fail lack these advantages and often possess their inverse–genetic disadvantages, bad parenting, bad education, less opportunity, less help from the state. To the extent that you are genetically gifted and enjoy a good environment, you succeed. To the extent that you are genetically shafted and suffer from a poor environment, you don’t.

These two running concepts, genetics and environment, are not merely the determiners of our economic or social success, they determine our behaviour more generally. If it was otherwise, the tenants of leftism would not hold. If it were the case that human beings had the ability to make decisions and choices independently of their genetics and environment, if they could contradict their nature or experience or transcend it somehow, then success or failure really would come down to sheer will or the lack thereof. Believing that success and failure is socially constructed entails a denial of the independent will. If all our beliefs and behaviours are the product of the traits we happened to have been born with and the experiences and upbringing we happen to have had, then there is nothing else left for which to account. All human beings are is an amalgamation of genetics interacting with environmental factors, and that’s it. The universe is determinist.

If we deny that the universe is determinist, there is no ground for objecting to the right’s argument that some people will themselves to success through virtue and others to failure through vice. If there is any other element, if there is any independent will, then some people really are fundamentally better people than others, are more deserving than others, and should be rewarded on that basis alone.

A lot of leftists, on some level, acknowledge determinism as true, but then they do a peculiar thing. They put their determinism in a box and do not permit it to influence their philosophy in other respects. Why do they do this? Some people consider the implications of determinism unsettling or unpleasant. It’s all well and good to say that other people don’t really have control over their behaviour and ought not to be blamed or credited for it, but leftists are often reluctant to self-apply determinism. They want to retain some belief in their own autonomy or ability to decide and make choices. Moreover, they often believe that, if they do not maintain this belief, it will be impossible for them to care at all about their lives, to be moral in any real sense, that their world views would collapse into nihilism. It would be okay to acknowledge that the world were determinist and then ignore it for the sake of our sanity if determinism were just a purely academic or philosophical question, but what I have hopefully shown you here is that it goes beyond that. Whether or not we are determinists has tremendous sway over our politics. If determinism is true, we can be leftists. If it’s false, we ought to be on the right.

So if we think leftism is correct, we must also think that determinism is correct, not merely in the “yes, technically, but keep it in a box” sense, but in a very real “this has implications for how we live” sense. It is inexcusable to maintain inconsistencies between our determinism and the leftist politics it entails and our broader moral theory and personal ethos. What other elements of our philosophy do we have to bring into consistency with determinism? And furthermore, how do we reconcile ourselves to what some perceive to be the disempowering gloom of a determinist worldview? I’ll have a go at answering these next time–after all, how could I do otherwise?