Reflections on the Meaning of Inequality

Among the weighty phrases thrown around in our public discourse, few are as provocative or poorly understood as “social justice” and “inequality.” A perspective on social justice was previously offered here.
With a H/T to Cafe Hayek, David Schmidtz’s article When Inequality Matters offers a philosophical perspective on the issue of inequality. (Note: His definition of “liberal” is the classical definition going back to prior centuries, not today’s definition.) This is not a casual read, but is one worth re-reading several times.

Everyone cares about inequality. Caring about inequality, though, is not enough to make inequality matter. Unless we have the right sorts of reasons to care, equality does not matter, at least not in the way justice matters. So, why care about inequality?
If the question has no simple answer, part of the reason is that equality is multi-dimensional…
Of the many dimensions along which people can be unequal, presumably some do not matter. Moreover, not all dimensions can call for amelioration, given that to ameliorate along one dimension is to exacerbate along another. The dimensions that do matter, though, may turn out to matter for the same reason, so even given that inequality is multi-dimensional, the reason to care about it may yet be relatively simple. Here are two possibilities.
1. The dimensions of equality that matter are dimensions where moving in one direction (letting wives have bank accounts, say) is liberating while moving in the other direction is oppressive.
2. The dimensions of equality that matter are dimensions where moving in one direction (toward equality of income, say) fosters prosperity while moving in the other fosters destitution.
My assumption here is that for an inequality to matter, it must make a difference…Simply calling a given inequality ‘unjust’ (some people paying more than others pay in taxes, say, or having more left after paying) is not a reason…we make good on the promise when we offer reasons why that particular inequality matters enough to warrant being called unjust.
Inequality That Matters: Toward Liberation
…The point of the liberal ideal of political equality is not to stop us from becoming more worthy along dimensions where our worth can be affected by our choices, but to facilitate our becoming more worthy.
Liberal political equality is not premised on the absurd hope that, under ideal conditions, we all turn out to be equally worthy. It presupposes only a traditionally liberal optimism regarding what kind of society results from giving people (all people, so far as we can) a chance to choose worthy ways of life. We do not see people’s various contributions as equally valuable, but that was never the point of equal opportunity, and never could be. Why not? Because we do not see even our own contributions as equally worthy, let alone everyone’s…In everyday life, genuine respect (to some extent) tracks how we distinguish ourselves as we develop our unique potentials in unique ways.
Traditional liberals wanted people – all people – to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams. Accordingly, the equal opportunity of liberal tradition put the emphasis on unleashing human potential, not equalizing it…
…Anderson suggests that when redistribution’s purpose is to make up for bad luck, including the misfortune of being less capable than others, the result in practice is disrespect…
Political equality has no such consequence…
Liberal egalitarianism has a history of being, first and foremost, a concern about status, not stuff. Iris Marion Young calls it a mistake to try to reduce justice to a more specific idea of distributive justice…Young sees two problems with the “distributive paradigm.” First, it leads us to focus on allocating material goods. Second, while the paradigm can be “metaphorically extended to nonmaterial social goods” such as power, opportunity, and self-respect, the paradigm represents such goods as though they were static quantities to be allocated rather than evolving properties of ongoing relationships.
…The proper function of our network of evolving relationships is not to keep us in our static place but to empower us to aspire to a better life. Even more fundamentally, the point is to empower us to become as worthy as we can be along dimensions where our worth is affected by the choices we make about what sort of life is worth living…
In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race’s purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society’s purpose. We form societies with the Joneses so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.
Inequality That Matters: Toward Prosperity
Here is a truism about the wealth of nations: Zero-sum games do not increase it. Historically, the welfare of the poor always – always – depends on putting people in a position where their best shot at prosperity is to find a way of making other people better off. The key to long-run welfare never has been and never will be a matter of making sure the game’s best players lose. When we insist on creating enough power to beat the best players in zero-sum games, it is just a matter of time before the best players capture the very power we created in the hope of using it against them. We are never so unequal, or so oppressed, as when we give a dictator the power to equalize us. By contrast, the kinds of equality we have reason to care about will be kinds that in some way facilitate society as a positive sum game…
One of the great sources of inequality (more precisely, inequalities of wealth and income) is the division of labor. If we truly were on our own, producing something as mundane as a slice of pizza would be out of the question. Even getting started…acquiring iron ore (with our bare hands) and turning it into an oven in which to bake the dough…would be out of the question. Without division of labor, the Joneses would go nowhere, so keeping up with them would be unavoidable. At the same time, the division of labor makes us many thousands of times more productive than we otherwise would have been. Compared to that, the income inequality that division of labor fosters is inconsequential. In summary, the kind of equality that is liberating is also the kind that historically has been a key to human prosperity…namely, acknowledging people’s right to use their own judgment about how to employ their talents under prevailing circumstances, as free as possible from encumbrances of a race-, sex-, or caste-defined socioeconomic roles.
From the Goodness of Equality to the Rightness of Equalizing
David Miller notices a difference between saying equality is good and saying equality is required by justice…Not everything that matters is a matter of justice.
…In the real world, to take from one person and give to another does not only alter a distribution. It also alters the degree to which products are controlled by their producers. To redistribute under real-world conditions, we must alienate producers from their products. The alienation of producers from their products was identified as a problem by Karl Marx, and rightly so; it should be seen as a problem from any perspective.
…The liberal ideal is free association, not atomic isolation. Further, the actual history of free association is that we do not become hermits but instead freely organize ourselves into “thick” communities. Hutterites, Mennonites, and other groups moved to North America not because liberal society is where they can’t form thick communities but because liberal society is where they can.
…We do not start from scratch. We weave our contribution into an existing tapestry of contributions, and within limits, are seen as owning our contributions, however humble they may be. That is why people contribute, and that in turn is why we have a system of production.
…When we do reflect on the history of any given ongoing enterprise, we feel grateful to Thomas Edison and all those who actually helped to make the enterprise possible. We could of course resist the urge to feel grateful, insisting that a person’s character depends on “fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit” and therefore, at least theoretically, there is a form of respect we can have for people even while giving them no credit for the effort and talent they bring to the table. One problem: this sort of respect is not the kind that brings producers to the table. It is not the kind that makes communities work…
…What about inequalities?…Unless an inequality (of talent, say) is ours to arrange, theories about what would be fair are moot. A truly foundational theory about how inequalities ought to be arranged would not start by imagining us coming to a bargaining table with a right to distribute what other people have produced. A truly foundational theory would start by acknowledging that there is a prior moral question about which inequalities are ours to arrange.

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