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Inequality: Does Anyone Really Care?

February 2nd, 2007 · 4 Comments

For various reasons, inequality seems to be a hot topic of late, and in particular I seem to be seeing a lot of folk taking up the abstract question of whether it’s inequality per se that we ought to be concerned with, or only whether the absolute level of the badly off is sufficiently high. All of which got me wondering: Does anyone really care about (material) equality in itself as an independent moral good? Lots of people profess to, but I want to suggest that if we get a little nitpicky about it, perhaps they don’t really think what they think they think.

First, for clarity’s sake, let’s distinguish three possible views of economic justice. First, there’s what you might call a Threshold View: What matters is that as few people as possible should be below some absolute level of well-being. On this view, it’s a matter of political concern when people lack adequate food or shelter, basic healthcare, education, opportunities for meaningful work, and certain other of what John Rawls would have dubbed “primary goods.” But our obligations here have a cutoff: Once (almost?) everyone has reached this minimum level, it is at least not a matter of political concern—not a question of justice—how much people have. If some people are only a bit above the minimum, while others have very much more, that is neither here nor there as far as public policy goes.

Next you’ve got the view that I suspect most self-described egalitarians actually hold, which (again borrowing from Rawls) we’ll call the Maximin View. Here again, what actually matters is the absolute level of well-being of the badly off. The only difference is that the obligation here has no upper-boundary; there’s no cutoff point past which we’re relieved of a duty to better the lot of those at the bottom of the distribution. Now, this will sometimes look like a concern with inequality per se, but the concern with inequality here is actually epiphenomenal. In other words, on this view, if some people have enormously more wealth or resources than others, the core problem is not that some have more as such. Rather, the disparity is taken as evidence that we could be doing a great deal more to improve the condition of the worst off (through redistribution), and are failing to do so. The apparent disapproval of “inequality” here is really more akin to the outrage a creditor might feel at learning that I am spending my time sailing about on my yacht even while I’m delinquent on my loan. The problem is not that there’s something wrong with my sailing on a yacht, but that the yacht is pretty solid proof that I’m shirking my debt. In short, inequality is not the problem, but the symptom of a (conceptually distinct) problem.

This might sound like a pedantic point—and maybe it is. For one, an obligation to improve the lot of the worst off bounded only by the available resources (held by the wealthy) will end up cashing out as a push to “decrease inequality” in a lot of cases. And it might be suggested that just the fact that we’re concerned with the worst off especially, rather than with increasing total aggregate utility, means we must be placing an independent value on equality that I’m neglecting. But this second objection, I think, misses the mark. The role equality plays in motivating a special concern for the worst off is just the idea of equal consideration that will be a feature of every plausible moral system, including aggregative views like pure utilitarianism. What distinguishes Maximin from the more aggregative views is not a more substantive commitment to equality, but a view about the separateness of persons that refuses to see the poor condition of one person as “compensated for” by augmenting the riches of another, already well off.

The third view, which I’m suggesting almost nobody actually holds, is Pure Egalitarianism. On this view, the value of equality is not (only) derivative from the obligation to better the condition of the worst off, but an independent good: If it were possible for the wealthiest in a society to become still better-off, but it were for some reason impossible to redistribute any of those gains down the ladder, this would be intrinsically bad, even though Pareto optimal. A strict reading of Rawls’ difference principle would seem to entail this, actually, since on one formulation, inequalities

are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. [emphasis added]

Without getting too far into the thicket of Theory of Justice, I’ll just say that this strict reading is not terribly plausible, and not what Rawls should have said on the basis of his own theory. There is no reason to think the parties to a social compact in Rawls’ original position would insist on “leveling down.”

Incidentally, this is just a guess, but I suspect that a hybrid of the Threshold and Maximin views is more common than either in isolation. We might call this a Contextual Threshold view: At any given level of social development, we should be concerned with achieving a basic minimum for everyone, rather than the unbounded promotion of the interests of the worst off, but what that minimum is will depend on the total wealth and resources of the society at that point. In fact, I’ll even wager that this is the view most self-described champions of equality really hold. Imagine a happy state of affairs in which the worst off have not just got a basic minimum, but are as materially well off as the very rich of today. Suppose further that the best off live in opulence we can’t even imagine, and that redistribution of their holdings would yield (for incentive reasons or whatever) drastic net reductions in social wealth, while improving only marginally the condition of those at the “bottom,” already quite well off in absolute terms. Would people really insist that justice demands we bring this about?

Now, let’s look at some of the arguments we see for caring about inequality as opposed to the absolute well being of the badly-off. One sort of argument has to do with the psychological effects of inequality. The idea here is that we so relentlessly compare ourselves to others that however high my absolute material wealth might be, my happiness will be reduced just knowing I’m at the bottom of the ladder. There are a lot of reasons to find this line of argument suspect, but note that while it is an argument for regarding material inequality as inherently problematic, it’s actually better cast as an argument for not regarding material holdings as the central moral issue. The core of the argument, that is, does not depend on there being a moral problem with inequality. Rather, it turns on happiness rather than holdings being the proper concern of justice. And I haven’t seen any sign that people pushing this view think inequality of happiness is intrinsically problematic. If there’s something wrong with the very-happy becoming happier still, it’s only the fear that it will diminish the absolute level of the happiness-impoverished.

Then there’s the material-inequality-as-political-inequality argument of the kind I looked at the other day. As I noted there, a lot of the putatively inequality-related problems Brad Plumer cites are really problems having to do with the poor being too deprived in absolute terms to fully participate in the political process. But even leaving that aside, the concern with material inequality here is again instrumental: The real problem, I’d hazard, is whether the political inequality it produces will prevent the poor from being able to secure what they’re due in absolute terms.

Fine, you might say, but why all the nitpicking? Maybe the foundational commitments of egalitarians really are as I’ve described them, but so what? At the level of policy, what they’re talking about still amounts to a demand for the reduction of inequality, and fussing over whether this is an instrumental goal in service of some deeper theoretical concern, or a problem with inequality per se seems like an angelic census of Pinheadville. Well, maybe so. But I do think it’s helpful to be clear what we’re talking about if only to put the emphasis in the right place. Indeed, I’d be inclined to think clarity on this front would be helpful to the egalitarians (which, perhaps, means I should shut up) insofar as it would eliminate the offputting suggestion that there’s something bad about rich people trying to get richer and keep the focus on how much the poor are due, and whether we’re meeting that obligation. The only motive I can think of for paying so much attention to the top end of the distribution is to play on the envy of middle-class workers to mobilize opposition to (say) lower marginal tax-rates for earners in the top brackets, without reminding them that they aren’t the ones there’s a morally defensible case for helping with whatever extra revenue higher rates might pull in.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin O'Reilly // Feb 2, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Julesy, good analysis even if it is helping out the other side. One point you may underestimate is how deeply liberals believe that rich-getting-richer really is hurting the middle class and how the middle class, too, is deserving of lots of social help — if not total egalitarian-type redistribution. Witness, for example, the Democrats’ quick move to cut interest rates on college student loans.

  • 2 Steven // Feb 2, 2007 at 11:32 pm


    Interesting post. I would say that I am roughly concerned with income distribution, but not necessarily with what we might call income equality. It seems to me that you can get behind the idea that it is problematic if a large swath of the public, let’s just call them “middle class America” without being too precise for now, is not getting what they are worth, and that this does not really need a comprehensive moral doctrine to advocate. This could be for lots of reasons, but lets just imagine that the middle class is being underpaid for performance due to a lot of bad institutional arrangements in both the business and political world. Now, I am sympathetic to what I suspect is your chief worry: the state is not someone we want to get too involved in deciding who is “overpaid” and who is “underpaid.” I happen to think that we ought to proceed with the presumption that such a fear is a very credible one. However, I also think that at some point, our entire political arrangement gets threatened if there becomes too much long term transfer of proportional wealth from the middle class to elsewhere because the Commercial Republic works pretty well at being unoffensive to almost every citizen in almost every situation because the interests of the vast American middle class mirror “the public good” generally pretty decently. Once we disempower the middle class too much, we threaten the equality that really matters: political equality. This is, for me, why the alarm bells go off when I examine recent economic data.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Feb 3, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Hm. I’m not actually sure I think there is any objective content to “overpaid” or “underpaid.” I mean, you can use the terms contextually to mean “paid more/less than the prevailing rate,” and I suppose you could say someone “overpaid” for a resource if, counter to expectations, it ended up generating less value than its price. But for the most part, it’s not even (just) that I don’t want the government determining what the case is; I doubt there’s an independent fact-of-the-matter to determine.

  • 4 Consumatopia // Feb 3, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    I never found the Maximin principle particularly compelling. Instead, I tend to go with a utilitarian summing of welfares, and combine that with the rather obvious notion that the diminishing value of marginal returns applies strongly to income.

    Combine that with your view of inequality as a symptom of a problem rather than as a problem, and the immense wealth and luxury of the rich is good evidence that redistribution towards the poor and/or the middle class would be an improvement in aggregate utility.

    I suspect my view is the dominant intuition behind egalitarians, and your final sentence is simply inapplicable to us.

    Also, dismissing political equality as instrumental without evidence seems kind of bizarre given how much emphasis we put in democracies on “one person, one vote”. There are more zero-sum games in politics than economics, and your loss of influence is almost always someone else’s gain in influence.