Rant: Social justice warriors, the environment, and Green parties

There have been blog posts about centre-Green parties (on TVHE here, here, here), I’m a bit fatigued with politics right now and want to focus on my research so I don’t want to get into that.

One thing I keep hearing, repeatedly, about a centre-Green party is that it doesn’t make sense because it involves hating people.  I hear the same thing about anything people don’t agree with, repeatedly.  Emails, phone calls, on twitter – for some reason people want to tell me how much other people hate people, and so they hate people or me or something.  I don’t know, whenever I hear blind hate it never makes much sense to me – but certain comments have pushed me into a rant.  It is a blog, these things happen sometimes, sorry.

The short version of my post is that the people saying this are disrespectful individuals who have no respect for other people and the difficulty of issues of social justice.  But if you want the full rant click below (and it is a furious rant with more colourful language).  For those who dislike rants (as do I), you could read this old post where I lay out a neat discussion of why social justice issues are core to all parts of the political spectrum, the focuses on “types” of injustice is what differs.

The type of attitude I’m complaining about is embodied in this tweet [Note: I’m not linking to the tweet – only putting in the text, as I don’t want it to be targeted at an individual at all]:

‘Blue Greens’ are really just people who care about the environment but don’t give a toss about the people living in it.

Now this is far from the only tweet of this type I’ve seen, I just saw this as an extreme example.  I also don’t want to pick on the author specifically here (in case someone recognises the tweet) – they appear to discuss things later on in the chain, and appear to be an intelligent and good person.  I have seen similar comments from a LARGE number of the people on twitter and have no doubt that there are many people making these comments as it represents how they feel.

Furthermore, I’m all for people disagreeing with what is “right” policy .  Debate, protest, discussion – important stuff.  Those people saying that they wouldn’t want a centre-Green party, that it doesn’t fit their belief system, that they don’t think there are votes in it are mentioning important points – points I definitely relate to.

Finally, I really want to reach out and have a discussion with the people making these types of comments – rather than alienating them in a passionate rant.

But … to be honest this specific comment and its ilk is this sort of rubbish that convinces many New Zealanders that the left are arrogant self-righteous “social justice warriors”*.  And legitimately, as long as a lot of people on the left are making these types of comments about other New Zealanders, then a lot of the vocal NZ left are arrogant self-righteous social justice warriors.

Saying that people who disagree that a given set of policies are what is “fair and just” don’t care about people makes me furious – it is a form of argument that I find insulting, and a type of argument the exudes an elitist arrogance which makes me show physical signs of anger.  How dare you accuse other people of not caring about our society just because their views differ to yours, what gives anyone the right to claim something like this – it makes me so furious that my anger is palpable!

I grew up with, and still spend time with, these types of Social Justice Warriors/Chardonnay Socialists/Craft Beer Communists. I appreciate hearing their thoughts on social issues and their wrestling with injustice.  But I refuse to control my seething distaste for the comments I often here from this group when someone disagrees with them – it is NOT OK to say others do not care about people.

If you make this kind of comment we have issues – I have all the time in the world for discussions about different value judgments, but as soon as you try to paint “others” as not caring about people while you do, you’ve crossed a very clear line with me.  And it is not just the word – but the very intention of it, if this is something you fundamentally believe we have … a problem.

Calm down it’s ok – we can tell you’re annoyed

Let me try to clarify this by getting back to point.  Now I’ve discussed the logic behind a left-Green and centre-Green in terms of ideas of sustainability here – if the current social system is perceived as “sustainable” (which embodies some view on fairness captured in the way we consider social outcomes) then these types of sustainability issues will not deserve as much weight as issues of natural sustainability (eg the environment).  In many ways a lot of New Zealander’s may well see society as fair, may believe that society is as fair as government policy could allow (given it can’t solve every injustice without creating greater injustices), or may at least believe that the policies being pushed by the parties on the left are not consistent with their idea of fairness.

Too have a left we need to admit left is relative, this is relative to the NZ consensus, who I also see as the boss.  In this context a “centre-Green” party merely accepts the current consensus policy on economic issues, while focusing on change relative to environmental issues.  It is genuinely that simple.  Saying that it involves “immoral” choices on current economic/financial policy is akin to saying that only the left has a moral mandate – holy cr*p if that is your view then arrogant was totally the right term!

Now how do I view “left” if we were to shift from centre.  The left-right spectrum all has room for evidence around trade-offs that exist, but differs in terms of the trade-offs they are willing to make – where the trade-offs are often policy specific, but boil down to a series of discussions about redistribution.  A clear example is a guaranteed minimum income – in that case someone who is economically left would support a higher minimum payment, and higher tax rates, than someone who is economically right.

But that was too simple, what about other policy questions!  Well in terms of “economic left and right” other questions get really hard to put on such a simple spectrum – to do this I often need to consider where we set boundaries on equality of opportunity, someone to the left will tend to set the “opportunity” bar very differently to someone much further to the right.  Here the lines get fuzzy with other dimensions policy can differ on namely social and environmental, and everything within them, but the key point with all of them is that the vast majority of people forming a view over this policy space are doing so given their perspective, and an interest of the people living in society with them.

One of the key things people may not realise reading this rant is that I self-identify as economically left (not centre left, left).  Not in terms of the Nolan chart definition of unweighted questions, but in terms of the scale of redistribution and the type of redistribution (through social provision of types of services).  I try to leave it out of the blog, but it is relevant for this rant.

I do not see many of the policies of the left as particularly left-wing when viewed analytically – the language I use is that they are “rhetorically” left wing rather than “functionally” (in terms of redistributive outcomes) left wing.

For example, given the current tax-benefit system the minimum wage hikes that are being discussed threaten to exclude the vulnerable in society from the labour market, while providing little income for the “households with children” that are supposedly being targeted.  If the left genuinely cared about individuals, the actual outcomes of their policies would matter rather than how well they think their policy rhetoric sells their appeal to other social justice warriors – and in that situation I wouldn’t find myself suggesting, as I did pre-election, that National was (in terms of focusing on genuine outcomes and opportunities – rather than just rhetoric) in some ways left of Labour.

I would support the policies of a left-Green party (if they represented what I see as left) above a centre-Green party.  But I would more likely vote for the centre-Green party due to their ability to work with either side – and thereby get traction on environmental issues.  This is just me, and the rest of the universe thinks about things differently – but their is no need for us to throw around names about people who think differently than us!

Do you have a general point, you’ve just been talking about this boring Green stuff again …

How many people who accuse the “other side” of not caring about people have actually tried to understand the other sides argument?  How many have actually gone through detailed empirical policy work trying to understand what trade-offs exist, and trying to figure out what we can know about social issues?  I tell you what it is a lot of work to do and no-one has the hours in the day – but I find it amazing anyone can have such a negative view of others intentions after doing all this work, let alone before doing it.

If you think the other side is “evil” please, try to figure out what their argument is first and discuss with them – if they won’t, that is their flaw, but often they will!  At the end you may agree to disagree (value judgments may differ) but it will allow you both to work out whether your definitions are the same and to share evidence.

If instead you think “right” policy is “self-evident” you are a moron – true story.

Anyway, I’ve written about the way these types of discussions break my will in the past, and will let this calmer version of me explain:

(the prior quote) reinforces, in my mind, why I am fatigued from seeing people claim the ‘labels’ of freedom, social capital, and egalitarianism.  Instead we should be honestly discussing our views on what is morally important and what trade-offs exist.

For many people out there writing on blogs and tweeting they are certain that their argument is what is essentially morally right – but I argue that you have a moral obligation to try and view your opponents argument in the best possible light, and to figure out why you differ.  Virtually no-one out there is supporting things which they believe are “unfair”, and by forcing yourself to understand their argument you learn more about your own views.

We all want and desire to help make the world a better place.  But we only do this by reaching some form of moral consensus between us, and a relative willingness to admit and deal with trade-offs – not by labeling people who disagree with our judgments as something relatively meaningless (neo-liberal, communist, Nazi) and ignoring their views.  Instead of labeling ourselves as focused solely on the basis of one factor we likely can’t explain (such as inequality, levels of social capital, or productivity – note that even highly trained economists can only give conditional statement, covered in caveats, about these issues) why not admit where your current focus on equality lies so we can have a data and theory based conversation of the costs and benefits that are part of that!  Who knows, such an experience may change your mind, or may change the views of those you are discussing the issue with.

An over-willingness to “fight the fight” instead of critically analysing our views merely makes us tools to the madness of popular ideology.  And remember, the intention of our ideas is not what is important, the likely outcome on people is what matters.

* I use the term social justice warrior on purpose – generally something is an XXX warrior when they do things in order to tell other people they’ve done them and earn respect from others, without really considering the action or its impact on others.  For example, I like to go for runs – but I despise the weekend warrior runners who cut corners and run at people so they can cut a second off their personal best time on Strava.

  • It’s a moral blackmail the Left employ, stating that if your means differ from theirs (to get to yet the same goal: a peaceful, prosperous society with fulfilled individuals) then you don’t care about people. I was told two days ago that because I didn’t believe paying a child credit to those on unemployment benefit would have the ‘public-good’ consequences those promoting the policy thought it would, I must therefore ‘want poverty’. While being careful to avoid umbrage taking, such an insinuation is quite offensive. It’s an arrogance that assumes they have the monopoly on ‘feeling’ and compassion. Over the election this was in our faces with the Greens billboards ‘we care’ and ‘we love NZ’, implying those not voting for Greens don’t care, et al.

    I’ve written blog post after post about it as it makes me angry. (Sorry for linkspamming, but the main one was here: http://lifebehindtheirondrape.blogspot.co.nz/2012/09/teaser-post-mindheart-dichotomy-feeling.html ) It’s impossible to argue the point on Twitter because those employing it take it as a deep seated assumption beyond reproach.

    Ultimately it comes down to the birthplace of Left politics, which is the tendency to emote policy (in a way that makes the emoter feel better about themselves), rather than think on policy from causes through to find actual solutions that work.

    … but that said, I’m sworn off politics for a while, because I’ve had a right gutsful of it at the moment 🙂

    • Mark, there is no problem popping up links to your own stuff here – it is that sort of blog 😉

      I think the right can do similar things, using other forms of stereotypes and often treating equity issues as “childish” – eg http://www.tvhe.co.nz/2013/11/29/also-careful-justifying-inequality/

      I want a discussion where we can compare and discuss moral judgments, lay it all out, and accept we won’t all agree. Accept that sometimes what we believe is right won’t be where society ends up going – but be able to discuss it with each other. When people merely treat others as stupid or evil it leaves no scope for that, and it genuinely upsets me!

      • Elinor_Dashwood

        Ha – I well remember that conversation Matt and hope you didn’t think that I was treating you as stupid or evil, for I certainly didn’t mean that; on the contrary I was trying hard to understand your position, for I never did really see what you found so utterly reprehensible about what Boris Johnson had said. It’s a fact of life that some are more fortunate than others, independent of their deserts; there’s only so much that any Government can do to re-distribute luck to be more in line with individual deserts; and examples from others as to what’s do-able act as a powerful motivator for effort and thus driver of achievement.

        • Yar, I definitely had no problem with what you were saying – and it is a valid ethical point of view. Of course, I strongly disagree that higher incomes due solely to status competition are valuable – but it would be hypocritical of me to turn around and pretend the view and principle don’t exist.

          It is only when it is framed as an “only” that I get irritable, and I was just trying to point out both sides can do that – I’m not sure I picked the best example here in the comments tbh 😉

  • Frank McRae

    I totally agree with this. It annoys me when left people lazily dismiss something as ‘neo-liberal’ evil and the right lazily dismiss things as socialist or communist evil. I really enjoy your blog as one of the rare places where the complexity of issues is discussed without resort to lazy ideology.

    Having said that, I sent a tweet yesterday saying that the blue-greens are needed for those that hate the poor but like Toyota Priuses. I don’t actually believe this and think there is much merit in a blue-green party. My intention was to make a joke and to mock the comfortable who superficially adopt ‘sustainability’ as an aesthetic. I certainly didn’t intend to come across as an intolerant ranting social justice warrior.

    Anyway – that was one of the most retweeted tweets I have ever had which goes to show that you can get a lot of attention by appealing to people’s prejudice and political ideology.

    • Hola,

      One of the key reasons I didn’t want to name any names is because I didn’t want to pick on people – and more generally things always get out of context on twitter (I can’t bear to think how I sound on it). So I read twitter with a grain of salt, and don’t think poorly of people who I’ve seen tweeting these sorts of things – and it was a lot of people, many of whom I hold in high regard. And if I was seeing it coming from the right I’d be just as palpable, but would also try to keep viewing people in the best light possible.

      But seeing how widespread it was I wanted to express my feelings – it is probably due to my life experience that I get especially wound up about these sorts of concepts. Everywhere we turn people seem to, implicitly most of the time, demean the value judgments of others. But everyone’s view, as an expression of their experience, has some validity. When I see people assume that other people disagree due to stupidity or “evilness” I see people projecting an unwillingness to understand social issues or to respect others experience and existence – given how important social issues are this saddens me greatly.

  • Anon

    The tragedy-of-talking-past-each-other? Each participant says “you must first acknowledge my concern as primary!”, forestalling real dialogue. To some extent this is an inherent danger of engagement in policy debates. Whether right, left, blue-green, orange or whatever, it is tempting to place oneself among a virtuous few. If only others would embrace your prescriptions!

    Of course, this also applies to those who call for reasoned debate of policy trade-offs. How virtuous, we few who call for informed debate, not like those tribalist warriors!

    We’re right, but we also need to be humble about being right.

    Relevant quote:

    “It’s much easier to be charitable in political debates when you view the two participants as coming from two different cultures that err on opposite sides, each trying to propose advice that would help their own culture, each being tragically unaware that the other culture exists.”


    • Very nice, what a commentary says to a person depends on the experience they have with which to experience it. This is true. And in so far as this supports people being very certain that their moral stance on an issue is right, due to their specific experience and understanding, that is great.

      But turning around and stating that the other sides argument could only exist if they don’t care about people – this is a person being arrogant and self-centred, that is all.

      In my rant I’m not trying to tell people to change their minds about what they think is right – or a post suggesting that those who look at trade-offs most should have the most say, as I don’t believe that type of attitude is useful or even necessarily true. Instead I’m angrily mumbling that they avoid painting anyone that disagrees with them as inherently evil. In the post I link too that isn’t a rant, I try to articulate why people may have different views on social injustice and that tolerance is key.

      I am intolerant about the form of debate which requires painting “others as bad”, indeed, but I think that position is quite clear from the post 😉

  • JC

    I think it was Roger Douglas who said something like “If you want to improve the lot of the poor you better make sure you have a rich country first”.

    Illustrative of that the OECD put up a list of the ten countries with the most inequality.. NZ was on it. Then the four countries with improving equality.. but they had national debts way North of 100% of GDP.

    My take on this is it doesn’t matter whether you are left or right but you must be a competent manager of the country’s resources.. then you have options..


    • This is a robust and common view, I hear it a lot – it is strongly related to Potential Pareto Improvements.

      One thing I’d keep in mind though is that we can’t costlessly redistribute – as a result, there can be quite a defined trade-off in terms of thing we may consider fair and things that maximise income. Discussing these trade-offs, and distributional issues, is useful 🙂

      • bliss

        Pareto-optimal is not compulsory. It is OK for some to suffer losses so that others are better off.

        • Potential Pareto Improvement allows for said losses, as long as the gains are sufficient that there could be a transfer that would result in a Pareto improvement 😉

      • JC

        One thing I’d keep in mind though is that we can’t costlessly redistribute”..

        True. And one of the political results is govts spend increasing amounts of money trying to defend/maintain some definition of equality which then brings in other problems of (say) unsustainable borrowing. Perhaps all that can be done is recognise that they have created an inequality and use time limited and targeted welfare to allow for readjustment.


        • Indeed, greater “government consumption/transfers” should by definition increase the ratio of non-tradable to tradable prices – which is exactly what we’ve seen. Hence why when I hear people saying they want more transfers and a lower real exchange rate in this sense, I feel like they are asking for a free lunch and get a bit uncomfortable.

          I’ve got no problem with whatever trade-off being decided upon, but we do have to accept it 😉

  • bliss

    This is an interesting rant, and it does touch on the problem with trying to identify as ‘left’ or ‘right’ today. But why drag the Green Party into this? I am in the Greens and there are a lot of people who came to the Greens from the left of Labour, but there are a lot who came from National. The current regime is unsupportable from a Green perspective: The emphasis on primary production over economic development, the emphasis on resource extraction over economic development, the resistance to monetary redistribution as a way of combating poverty. And on and on. Chances are that Labour left to their own devices would be just as bad, but right now, in 2014 the Greens have influence and sway over Labour, and none over National. Times will change and we (the Greens) may well support a future National government, but just not this one. AND this governments record on the environment is abysmal. So I agree about thoughtless attacks from the ‘left’, not on the ‘right’ but on all who disagree (and the attacks are hardest on others who identify as ‘left’) but please look a bit harder at the Greens if you think we are thoughtless!


    • Hi Bliss,

      Just as a starting point here this is not meant to be a comment about the current Green party at all – and I am incredibly sorry if it reads that way. Part of the reason I wrote so much about the Greens pre-election is because I respect them, and I have a lot of time for the people I have met who are involved.

      My post is about comments which attack those who view those who have a different view regarding economic policy as immoral – rather than accepting views can justifiably differ. It is a disrespectful view of those that disagree, and it came out strongly when people were suggesting the idea of a centrist-Green party (which is just as consistent as a left-Green party – as I’ve tried to articulate here http://www.tvhe.co.nz/2014/09/25/sustainability-and-flavours-of-green-parties/ ).

      I want the current Green party to exist and stay where it is – I’m not following Gareth Morgan’s view that the Greens have to bend their policies. However, I can see worth in the political space for a separate Green party that accepts the status quo on economic issues, but wants change on environmental issues. I don’t think it would get into parliament, but it is a conversation worth having. People that are ruling out this conversation by saying that anyone suggesting it “doesn’t care about people” make me very angry – and that was very much the subject of my rant 😉

      • bliss

        A bit sensitive, am I! FWIW I would like to see such a party too. It would make clear the short comings in that approach. But it would not be a ‘Green’ party. ‘Green’ is about ecology, which is about more than environment. ‘Social Justice’ is a core part of the Green kaupapa. The current economic ‘status-quo’ includes the concentration of wealth to owners (and senior management – an intriguing aspect of modern capitalism that is mostly overlooked) and the impoverishment of large sectors of society. Not cool.


        • You are definitely not sensitive, I just wanted to make it clear I had no intention of attacking the Greens here – and I’m sorry if it sounded that way. I also agree that the social justice perspective is central to the Green party.

          Good point on terminology – I think the view of people selling it is that they want an “environmental” party. Perhaps it is all about figuring out a name!

          And with regards to concentration of wealth etc, the key thing is that there are different views about how this functions – let alone different views regarding what is “right”. It is in this sense that there are likely some who disagree with the Green parties view on these economic issues, but can still consistently agree on the environmental side – that is definitely within that “types of sustainability” post I mention above. And before anyone mentions Piketty – I’ll just suggest that I have a relatively long review of Capital on my blog, and the point is probably covered in that 😉

    • Michael Philip

      not thoughtless, just have bad ideas. and what’s economic development?

  • bliss

    And another thing!-)

    For example, given the current tax-benefit system the minimum wage hikes
    that are being discussed threaten to exclude the vulnerable in society
    from the labour market, while providing little income for the
    “households with children” that are supposedly being targeted.

    This is a naive economic analysis: Put the price of labour up and the demand for labour will go down. If all else were equal this would be true. But you must know that there is fierce debate about this as applies to increasing low minimum wages. The arguments include (*) Minimum wag jobs are mostly jobs that must be done. There is no scope for doing away with them (*) Minimum wage workers spend all the extra income (as they are, generally, very short of spending money and have zero to negative savings) leading to multiplier effects and increased economic activity (*) Young single people on good wages is not a travisty. If we increase wages as a means of addressing families in poverty a side effect is that a lot of young people will have much more money I am 50, when I was 19 I earned $300 a week as labourer. That was great, I had a lot of fun with that money. The generation before me did even better.

    My point is that there is room for sensible debate here, and the model ‘put up the minimum wage and you put minimum wage workers out of jobs’ is being repeated by some on the ‘right’ in wxactly the same thoughtless way that you rightly critisise some on the ‘left’ for


    • Ha, I think calling it a naive economic analysis is a bit harsh, and potentially a bit naive 😉 – it is the summary of a series of points I discussed in part 2 of this:


      And has been discussed in a lot more detail in other places – such as the links I touch on in that post.

      There is room for sensible debate here, but when the minimum wage policy was announced by Labour they said “this will help households with children to earn XXX more” – when the abatement of benefits implies that the actual increase in incomes is a lot lower. This small increase in incomes occurs and, given the high level of minimum wages in NZ relative to the average wage, there will be a corresponding impact on employment (as the impact on wage costs is much more significant than the impact on take-home income) – an impact that falls on those workers who have the lowest capability to produce, and are New Zealand’s most vulnerable.

      You say that they are jobs that must be done but that there is a power imbalance in these markets – this is a clear mechanism and a valid argument, so thanks for raising it. However, in many cases they are jobs that can be automated, or replaced with capital, or that offer a very low “return” to the business – this does suggest disemployment over time. Ignoring this and acting like the minimum wage increase is some silver bullet – as the policy announcement did – was disappointing.

      This is exactly why I called much of the NZ left policy announcements “rhetorically” left wing rather than “functionally” left wing – the industrial subsides (subsides for capitalists), minimum wage pushes, and focus on the merit of those in work can be sold as left wing. But in a redistributive sense, and given a concern about income adequacy, they don’t necessarily neatly fit in. Functionally economically left-wing policies focus on direct income adequacy issues (to my mind), namely land-taxes with corresponding social dividend payments to everyone, the size of these dividend/benefit payments to the poor, and policies around access to training and information (along with the opportunity to make the time for it) for individuals – again this view of functional policy comes from my reading of Sen’s capability approach.

    • Michael Philip

      your analysis itself is very naive and thoughtless and on top of that ignorant of the tradition in which you’re arguing.

      • Let all of us agree to avoid the word naive – I don’t think it is adding too much in reality 🙂

    • ben

      Bliss, gosh, where to start. Lots of research confirms minimum wage drives unemployment and hits youth and minorities the hardest. Even if the jobs must be done minimum wage induces substitution from labour to capital. Not sure about multiplier effects, since macro is close to nonsense IMHO, but any income multiplier effect should be considered net of unemployment created by a higher minimum. How about an unemployment multiplier: min wages increase leads to unemployment leads to human capital depreciation leads to permanent exclusion from the labour market leads to poverty, crime leads to generational dependence. Most expensive pay increase imaginable. Nobody’s against paying youth more but if it is illegal to pay someone what they produce, and when they are starting out and their production is low as it will be, then that must harm their work prospects, by definition. Firms will be charitable on occasion, and good on them, but that is no way to organise an entire economy.

      I hope you will recognise an argument that tries to build on reason and evidence not ideology out of a shared interest in seeing the most vulnerable get ahead.

  • Michael Philip

    Under a minimum wage regime, low value work is either not done, done by government,
    done in the context of other more valuable work, happens overseas or is simply innovated around.

  • Michael Philip

    “My point is that there is room for sensible debate here, and the model ‘put up the minimum wage and you put minimum wage workers out of jobs’ is being repeated by some on the ‘right’ in exactly the same thoughtless way that you rightly critisise some on the ‘left’ for”

    any “sensible debate” should start by acknowledging the well documented dis-employment effects of the minimum wage. Most of its supposed benefits apply only to those who already have jobs or who already have vital work experience, those on the inside looking out. Things are very much different for those on the outside looking in.

  • ben

    Two points:

    Social justice is the single phrase, than any other I know, that gets more people excited, while at the same time meaning nothing in particular. It works by being all things to everyone. And it is trivial: nobody could be for social injustice. Hopefully Matt has written down what he means by social justice, which may or may not have anything to do with what everyone else is talking about.

    Second point: on the whole I don’t go around accusing anyone of not caring about people, but I do think it reasonable to point out where the logical end point of an ideological framework is the de-emphasis or even exclusion of humanity, whether recognised and intended or not by the proponent. For example, a framework which does not recognise, in any circumstances, the human value of tradeoffs between environmental quality and non-environmental objectives could be argued to effectively assign zero weight to human suffering and existence. I struggle with the idea of imposing carbon limits on countries that have not yet solved the problem of feeding their populations. The cost of environmental standards in these circumstances can be measured in lives. Yet some elements continue to push such measures in those circumstances, rather than recognise the value of human life and happiness alongside environmental outcomes, and the (positive) long term relationship between incomes and environmental protection. I assert unambiguously my right to point out ideas which put people second and the consequences of that.