Equality: Just and unjust

Ethics Political Philosophy Social Issues

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Social equality matters. But does it matter how we go about getting it? Surely it does.

There are two ways to think about equality. The way that I find most interesting is not the one I’m talking about here. I’m most interested in what I call basic equality. That’s the idea that we are all each other’s equal. We’re all equally deserving of a basic level of respect, we all have the same starting point when it comes to our inherent value and there’s therefore something true to the claim that we have a duty to treat each other as having a fundamental dignity as human beings. I think that’s a correct idea. I also think it’s a fascinating idea because it’s tenaciously held by many proponents of political liberalism who reject the theological foundations of basic equality, as I discussed in episode 8, “Secularism and Equality.” I don’t think they can have it both ways.

But that’s not the kind of equality that I’m talking about now. Here I’m talking about equality as an outcome at which we aim, the results of personal practices as well as social policies. To aim at equality in this sense is not, of course to make everyone just the same (surely nobody wants that), but it is to try to aim at creating a society where everyone can thrive and there’s no gross disparity in people’s lot in life. Sure, some people will be rich and others not so much. But to have general social equality, there won’t be CEOs with weekly incomes that amount to a full year’s wages for someone who works back-breakingly hard for forty hours a week (to pick an obvious example). There won’t be people who can afford every luxury that life can possibly offer, while others who genuinely work to earn a living and provide for their families must live in continual anxiety about whether or not they can meet costs of the basic necessities of life.Is this sort of equality desirable? Absolutely. Social equality (or negatively stated, the absence of this sort of very stark inequality) is good for people. Watch this fairly brief presentation by Richard Wilkinson on the harm of economic/social inequality. Wilkinson is the author of The Impact of Inequality. He has his biases, like anyone. It’s unhelpful to try to connect social inequality with the existence of the death penalty, for example, in a way that implies an answer about whether or not the death penalty is a just punishment (although the different question of whether it is applied consistently is a question where equality is relevant). But I hope you’ll see that there’s a genuine point to be made here:

We – on the right and the left – need to have fact-based views (duh), and it’s a fact that marked social inequality is bad for society.

I try not to be overtly political too often at this blog, at least in part because I know that can affect the attitude of readers who don’t share my political point of view. The result can be that when they read anything I say, their reading may be coloured negatively because they regard me as a “lefty” or “right wing nutjob” etc. I know this effect is had on people because I see it in action all the time, even in myself as a reader. That being said, in the past I’ve offered the occasional indication that I do not share a left-wing outlook in politics. I have much in common with the classical liberal tradition. I say that so that nobody misconstrues my agreement with Wilkinson on equality as a nod to the political left. It isn’t. We – on the right and the left – need to have fact-based views (duh), and it’s a fact that marked social inequality is bad for society. But of course, that fact in and of itself offers no guidance as to how we should aim for a solution. That’s partly why I object to the shallow political slogans implying that if you care about equality, you’ll favour the political left.

I grinned at Wilkinson’s comment, “If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.” The innuendo (I think) is that supposedly free-market capitalist societies (like America) don’t achieve the sort of relative prosperity for people that they set out to achieve, but countries of a very different climate (more left-wing politically and economically, like the Scandinavian countries) do. I grinned because the comment really did step beyond the evidence and reveal a political hand of cards. Topping the list of countries where equality is high and social ills are low – even by the measures used in this presentation – is not Denmark, but Japan, not a left-leaning nation by any widely shared standards. Why not say that Americans who want to live the American dream should go to Japan? My own suspicion is that this would fall afoul of the narrative that we’re supposed to be buying into here: That socialised services and generally socialistic societies (not pure Socialist or Communist, mind you) are the way to go. At least, that’s the impression I got from this witty comment – or maybe it was just a friendly dig at Americans, I don’t know. But the notion – not necessarily Dr Wilkinson’s, but a notion you have probably heard expressed nonetheless – that left-wing states with large wealth redistribution programs are good because they promote equality, is one that I want to say something about.

Consequentialism is (roughly) the view that the moral status of an action (or a rule) can be determined by tallying up the overall consequences of the action (or rule). It is sometimes sloganised by saying “the end justifies the means.” Yes, that’s a really simplistic depiction, but I do not mean to caricature the view, I just don’t want to spend a lot of time and space unpacking it here. To find out more about consequentialism, read about it. I am not a consequentialist. I think that two courses of action that have the same overall outcomes might still be morally different.

As Dr Wilkinson pointed out, there are major differences between countries that enjoy relative equality. Japan is a free-market Mecca with relatively low taxes, a relatively small welfare state and a relative economic equality that exists prior to social tinkering by the government. By contrast, Sweden, Wilkinson notes, has “huge differences in earnings,” but it basically counters this fact through taxation and wealth redistribution. This is the point in the analysis where I would have wanted to say “Oh, so one is better than the other” (for reasons that I’ll discuss shortly). Wilkinson notes the same thing when it comes to American states. Some states are more (internally) equal than others. Of the more equal states, some have what I would call natural equality – economic equality is brought about through the economic interactions of the members of society. Other states don’t have natural equality, but the government works against this fact and produces a more equal outcome via top-down programs of wealth redistribution. Here too, I would have said that this shows that not all equality is equal.

But as it turns out, Dr Wilkinson (and a whole lot of people, to be fair, probably including the bulk of the audience at this talk) is much more of a consequentialist than I am, saying “so we conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow.” It doesn’t matter? No, not if you’re a hard-line consequentialist it doesn’t. But as I said, I’m not a consequentialist. I think there are very important differences between a society where people interact in such a way as to mutually foster equality, and a society where people do not foster equality in the way that they interact, but the government steps in to make up the difference. To say otherwise, in my view, is a bit like saying that a person who has never broken his arm has had as good a life as a person who has broken his arm many times, but doctors have put a cast on and it has been mended. Or put another way (perhaps in a way that better reflects the ongoing actions of a the state to undo the equality of society), it’s a bit like saying that a naturally tall man is really no different from a short man who always wears stilts because he doesn’t want to be short. But of course there’s a difference! The second man simply isn’t tall. One more analogy. Imagine two nations, nation A and nation B. In nation A, everyone is healthy. In nation B, two-thirds of the people suffer from a fatal lung disease. To counteract this, the government taxes everyone to pay for artificial lungs, which people carry around in a backpack, and which they use to breathe so that their lung disease doesn’t kill them. Now imagine that a spokesperson for nation B declares, “the health of our people is just as good as that of they people in nation A. You don’t see us dying of disease, do you?” But whatever the outcome of this process of taxing people and providing artificial lungs, it’s pretty clear to anyone else that the health of these two nations is not the same, and that the health of nation A is better.

Social systems like this basically admit failure by having “whoops” arrangements.

What these analogies show us is that in fact there’s a significant difference between a nation that achieves equality “naturally,” as the result of mutual and free co-operation, and a nation whose economic policies would naturally tend to destroy equality, so they add extra policies to redistribute wealth to make up for this inequality, so that the final outcome makes people equal (not exactly equal, of course, but equal enough so that there’s not gross inequality). Social systems (where that means a total picture of social and economic law and policy) like this basically admit failure by having “whoops” arrangements. Their law and policy is written with the expectation that society will fail to promote equality, so it provides – not fixes (for that would imply the system that produced inequality is fixed), but compensation (or more cynically, “cover-up”).

It’s certainly less efficient to compensate for inequality by having large programs of wealth redistribution than it is to have less social inequality to begin with. This will seem to many like a pretty dry, accountant-type thing to say. But it’s true. As far as how well systems work is concerned, a system that produces what we want is better than a system that doesn’t produce what we want until we subvert its natural outcome, pour extra resources into it and add on extra mechanisms to change the outcome to the one that we want. Many people would justifiably say that a system of the second sort really doesn’t work. It only appears to work because we’ve hidden the true outcome. If it’s necessary to do that just because the natural outcome would be so bad, then maybe the system isn’t so good after all.

But even that’s something less than fully satisfying to me. “Because it’s more efficient” falls short of any real answer to the question “what makes this way of doing things morally better than other ways?” Are there moral reasons to prefer one over another? I’m inclined to think so. From the standpoint of moral accountability, efficiency gives us a moral reason to prefer more efficient arrangements to less efficient ones. After all, spending public funds to solve a problem that we partly create and sustain, compensating for our errors rather than fixing them, on the face of it, is actually the wrong thing to do. It constitutes a willingness to regularly spend everyone’s money on something that should cost less if only we would seriously address the system that gave rise to the expense in the first place.

Relying on the compensation that an economic policy offers is OK if you realise you’ve got a social disaster on your hands, you know you can’t fix it right now, and you need a stop-gap in the meantime while you work on a solution or terrible things will happen to people. Fair enough. But to then say that because the stop-gap is working, you’re not going to make an effort to fix the problem that required the stop-gap – that smacks of political laziness. And even worse, if you then legitimise the type of failed economic arrangements that led to the need for compensatory measures in the first place and claim that they are part of a system that “works” in promoting equality is flat-out wrong.

Surely a nation that achieves equality through free, mutual co-operation is in a better state than a nation that fails in this endeavour and resorts to top-down fiddling to make it look as though they got it right, costing everyone in the meantime.

Surely what Wilkinson should have said in his video is something like this: If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Japan. And hopefully nations like Denmark, which right now are intervening to correct the outcomes of their current economic policies, can eventually figure out how to change their policies until they too can do as well as Japan, and they won’t need to spend so much extra taxpayer money fixing what went wrong. Because surely a nation that achieves equality through free, mutual co-operation is in a better state than a nation that fails in this endeavour and resorts to top-down fiddling to make it look as though they got it right, costing everyone in the meantime.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Mark Webster Hall March 12, 2013, 9:24 pm

    I agree that social equality is important. But I don’t find the above argument entirely persuasive as it stands. The ethically relevant distinction working to find traction here is that between economic equalities that exist prior and subsequent to government “interference” (your “tinkering”). But it is this notion of state interference that I find most radically underdescribed in the present account. What is lacking, fundamentally, is history. Without some attention being paid to how, for instance, Japan reached its declared achievement of “mutual and free co-operation” (presumably within (or as) the marketplace), that achievement (as indeed the phrase itself: “mutual and free co-operation”) remains in danger of being more or less unexamined.

    One question that needs raising at this point would thus concern whether Japan (or any other modern nation state) secured its possession of a marketplace of “mutual and free co-operation” in a manner consistent with this cultural logic of “mutual and free co-operation”. And I would suggest that the answer to that question is clearly no. Confiscation of peasant landholdings, forced urbanisation, murky entanglements of credit networks and production capacities with longstanding imperialist ventures are all part of the story here in the scuppering of feudal obstacles to the free-market dream. Just as they were part of the (historical) story in (say) Korea and The Philippines (albeit with these latter on the receiving end of the flesh-and-debit imperialist narrative). Just as they were in the case of Denmark (and pretty much all of Northern Europe) if you go far enough back. The enclosure of seisin-held (“multiply-privately shared”) lands and the fiscal-military bootstrappings of “free market” trajectories are by no means a recent phenomenon. My point being that the kind of “freedoms” (and “mutualities” and “free co-operativities”) that are being chased down here within the historical frame are always going to be far more vexed and precarious than the formulas (“mutual and free-cooperation”) they engender. We cannot rely on these varnished/ garnished concepts (these victory mottoes) to reveal their fraught heritage precisely because part of the workloads of the concepts in question is to cover that heritage up.

  • Glenn March 12, 2013, 11:49 pm

    Mark, interesting thoughts. I would hasten to point out, however, that I certainly haven’t said that, for example, we should figure out how, say, Japan, got to where it is, and then seek to get there in the same way. You’re right that the historic path that it took to become what it is raises concerns, and this reinforces my disagreement with the claim that “it doesn’t matter how you get equality.” I think you’re agreeing with me that really it does matter how we get equality.

    What I have said is that there’s clearly something better about having equality prior to tinkering than only getting equality after expensive tinkering (tinkering that is required because our policies don’t naturally promote equality). What we should desire is the former, and we should implement the latter only as an admission that we’re not there yet.

    That there are also other morally relevant factors in how we reach social/economic equality that may make the process of getting there more or less just (e.g. the historic path that Japan took) is never going to be disputed. (Not by me anyway.)

  • Joel December 9, 2015, 9:16 pm

    “ to have general social equality, there won’t be CEOs with weekly incomes that amount to a full year’s wages for someone who works back-breakingly hard for forty hours a week .” The growing disparity between the income of a janitor and a CEO is not something to be concerned about. The reason the CEO becomes so prosperous is because he is creating products or services that improve our standard of living. Intellectuals have tended to focus on money and not on the reason we give it. We give it to incentivize people to produce goods and services, and that is the real wealth that is created. Wealth does not consist of the paper currency, otherwise we could make ourselves wealthy through inflation. Compensating money from those who are most productive in society and redistributing it makes everyone worse off. It is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

    “ Of the more equal states, some have what I would call natural equality – economic equality is brought about through the economic interactions of the members of society. Other states don’t have natural equality, but the government works against this fact and produces a more equal outcome via top-down programs of wealth redistribution.”

    The problem with liberal views on equality is that they contradict reality. There is nothing unusual about inequality. All countries and cultures have all sorts of inequalities. In most countries in south Asia there are very large disparities. The 5% of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia own something like four-fifths of the capital. The Chinese immigrants in many of these countries were able to lift themselves out of poverty by becoming good industrialists. During the 1960s in Malaysia, the Chinese had one hundred times as many Engineering degrees as Malaysians, and they were way overrepresented in that field. In the 1920s, European Jews in Holland and Poland constituted over half of physicians in those countries despite being a small minority.

    Demographic factors certainly play a role as well. It is common for different ethnic groups to have disparities in the median age up to a decade. At one point in America the median age of Jews was 20 years older than that of Puerto Ricans. Even if everything else about these groups was identical, it would still be impossible for them to be equally represented in the job market due to the disparity in age. Geography, natural resources, demographics, economics, culture, religion, birthrates, talent, and education all play a role in inequality. There are so many factors contributing to this that one wonders why anyone expects anything other than inequality.

    The whole issue of inequality is a canard. What matters is that people’s standard of living is increasing, not where they are relative to anyone else. The focus on these inequality statistics simply ignores the differences in productivity that contribute to the wealth all of us benefit from. Egalitarianism is simply a fantasy that cannot be achieved even with a totalitarian state. It goes against human nature and the laws of economics. I do not think a position that seeks equality naturally even makes sense, since such a state could hardly be more unnatural. As Burke put it, equalization could only mean “equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary.”

  • Glenn December 9, 2015, 11:43 pm

    Joel, nowhere in your comments do you appear to acknowledge the evidence that there really exists a correlation between significant economic inequality and various social ills. You mention unjust ways of resolving inequality (as do I), and you talk (although obviously very briefly) about some factors that might contribute to inequality, but none of that supports your contention that “The whole issue of inequality is a canard.” This is an empirical matter, and we can’t just offer sweeping dismissals.

    I’d recommend that you do watch the short video, and from the sounds of it it may even be useful to go further, perhaps look at the book The Impact of Inequality, mentioned in the post.

  • Joel December 10, 2015, 10:24 am

    I think you are missing my point, Glenn. To view inequality in general as a social ill makes little sense because it is part of the natural order of things and the situation in which we find ourselves. All sorts of inequalities exist everywhere you look, and much of it is natural, not artificially created by the state. Not all inequality is negative. Market inequality is good and is part of the process of increasing capital, while political inequality is usually unjust. Market inequality will inevitably result from the fact that some people are better at satisfying their customers than others. It is not the state that creates this inequality but the free exchange of goods and services, and the only way to prevent this inequality is by constant interference by the state.

    Much of this inequality has nothing to do with government policy at all, and it would be impossible for some countries to live up to some arbitrary standard of equality just because of the circumstances they find themselves in. I do not think comparing countries with radically different situations in this respect is at all helpful in determining how just their economic order is. That is why I have a problem with the premise on which your case rests. In some cases it is just unclear why some countries are more unequal than others, but to a large extent it is not very relevant to any particular policy.

  • Glenn December 12, 2015, 8:09 pm

    “To view inequality in general as a social ill makes little sense”

    Joel, it is you, rather than I, who are missing the point. The evidence didn’t show that inequality was a social ill – it showed that inequality correlates with social ills. If you can’t re-describe somebody’s observations in terms that resemble the original, something’s up.

    As for your closing paragraph, you may have mistaken my views for the views of the guy in the video. Recall that I am the one saying that relative equality achieved without government intervention is much better than equality that is coerced.

    I don’t have confidence that you’re understanding what I have been saying, Joel. i say that because you claim that the premise on which my case rests is that inequality is dependent on a particular policy. I haven’t suggested anything like this, so it looks to me like you’re flailing about, looking for a disagreement, even if it’s with something I never said. Sorry for how that probably sounds, but I’d suggest giving it a rest. I’m out.

  • Joel December 13, 2015, 11:28 am

    “The evidence didn’t show that inequality was a social ill – it showed that inequality correlates with social ills.”

    Many Marxists would say that inequality is a social ill because it is brought about by capitalist exploitation which gives rise to class conflict. I accept the correction but I really do not see how this is an important distinction for the purposes of my argument. Whether you say inequality is a social ill itself or that it merely leads to social ills, the point is that inequality is not good for society. Either way I disagree because I think inequality arises out of human nature and the normal and natural laws that govern commerce, as did virtually every classical liberal worthy of the name. You appear not to accept this and affirm the opposite.

    I fully understand your distinction between means and ends, and I completely agree with you on the error of consequentialism. This is not what I had in mind though. What I am saying is that your position of ‘natural equality’ is a pie in the sky idea that is simply unattainable. You cannot bring about equality naturally. Political views have to be grounded in reality, and what if egalitarianism is an unatainable goal? Why bother with it if it cannot be achieved. Saying that America should be more like Japan presupposes that this is feasible by some means. I am saying it is probably impossible by any means, and certainly impossible naturally. There are differences between nations that do not fall within our power to alter that account for disparities in wealth, which means inequality is to a large degree a fact of life and not something we can rectify. Even if I accept your claim that inequality is tied to social ills, the point remains that much inequality is not amenable to correction.

    I realize that you do not necessarily favor economic controls, although you did say that some tinkering may be justifiable if have a social disaster on your hands. But if your views are unrealistic or impossible, then you have to either go with socialism or just take my position and give up worrying about inequality altogether. I think that puts you in a difficult spot, and I do not think you can just dismiss this dilemma and go on to talk about other things.

  • Glenn December 13, 2015, 2:31 pm

    “But if your views are unrealistic or impossible, then you have to either go with socialism or just take my position and give up worrying about inequality altogether. I think that puts you in a difficult spot, and I do not think you can just dismiss this dilemma and go on to talk about other things.”

    Fortunately (as I see it) I am not in a dilemma. Nobody has given me a reason to think that my views are unrealistic or impossible. I can hardly see how my view that equality can be just and unjust is an impossible thing to believe. Nor has anyone shown me that relative equality is itself impossible or unrealistic (indeed we know it’s possible, as in the case of Japan) – not that I have said it’s possible (from memory, I wrote this a long time ago). My argument, as you may recall, is that outcomes that result in equality are not all equal outcomes, because some of them may be more just than others.

    So without even considering whether the dilemma is real (nobody has shown that it is), I don’t see myself as having committed to anything unrealistic.

  • Joel December 15, 2015, 12:57 pm

    Equality in treatment makes equality in outcome less probable since people are going to have vastly disproportionate skills and abilities. So if you accept equal treatment, this would seem to require accepting inequality. The only way to ensure equality is to treat people of lesser ability differently than those with greater abilities to make up the difference. You made the point that all ways of obtaining equality are not equal, but what other way is there? If you do not step in to interfere to make up for the fact that there are huge disparities in the set of skills you need to obtain a decent economic status, how does this problem get resolved? Who will deal with it if not the state? It seems you either have to treat people unequally, or leave peoples’ ambitions unchecked, leading them to realize their potential with varied results.

    Socialist economists know that equalization requires state intervention. You get more equal outcomes by blunting the ambitions of men, making sure they do not achieve a certain amount of wealth despite the fact that the wealth they are generating is essential to economic progress. You want to uphold liberty and equality at the same time, but this is surely infeasible and has never been achieved anywhere. If the Soviet Union could not achieve equality through totalitarianism, what makes you think a free society could achieve it? In a free society men make or break themselves; that is what freedom entails. I cannot enjoy the same success as my neighbor because we have different talents and abilities. God did not create us equal in potential, and even if He did we would still be unequal in terms of our motivations. Unless you want to fight against the natural state of man with unnatural economic compensations, I do not understand how you will arrive at anything other than inequality. Freedom is by its very nature unequal.

  • Glenn December 15, 2015, 12:59 pm

    Thanks Joel, I appreciate your thoughts.

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