Why do we need to fight inequality
The existence of inequality has become a matter of course, in the face of the vast institutional machinery, individual grievances seem to be very small.
There is something so profound about inequality in America, and in the world, that it may be morally objectionable. But we don't know exactly why that is, that is, what are the moral arguments against inequality and, where possible, for reducing or eliminating it. The purpose of this book is to better understand these reasons.
We may want to redistribute resources from the rich to the poor. One argument for this idea is that it would make the poor better off at relatively little cost to the well-being of the rich. This may be a strong argument for redistributive policies, but it is not fundamentally an argument against inequality; That is, this is not to argue that there are differences between the happiness levels of some people and the happiness levels of others. It is simply an argument for raising the well-being of the poor, and perhaps a very powerful one. The fact that some people are much better off than the poor is relevant to the case for redistribution simply because, as the famous American bank robber Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, "the money is there".
By contrast, some justifications are egalitarian because they reject the idea that there is a difference between what some people have and what others have, and they demand that this difference be reduced. Next, I will pay special attention to such reasons. But this is not because such arguments are more important than those for improving the lot of the poor (they tend not to be), but because they are more puzzling.
It seems difficult to justify this focus on equality. Robert Nozick, for example, made a famous accusation. He sees a concern for equality as a concern for a particular pattern of distribution, and that pattern can only be sustained by interfering with the freedom of individuals to make choices, take risks, and enter into contracts that would disturb the pattern.
Why, Nozick asks, should we try to maintain an arbitrary pattern of distribution at the expense of constant interference with individual liberty? When we show in this abstract way that there is a conflict between equality and freedom, equality immediately seems to be at a disadvantage. There are obvious reasons to oppose interference with freedom: no one wants to be taken away from his cherished options or told what to do. But the case against inequality is less clear. People have good reasons to want their lives to be better. But why should they care about the differences between their lives and the lives of others? As a result, the charge is often made that demands for greater equality simply reflect the envy of the "poor" against the "rich".
The case for egalitarianism (that is, concern with equality and inequality) can be broad and narrow. In a broad sense, as long as there is a difference between what some people have and what others have, they are egalitarian reasons. This includes arguments based on the consequences of such differences, even if the arguments against consequences have nothing to do with equality. For example, there is substantial empirical evidence that inequality has a very severe impact on the health of the poor. This certainly makes a strong instrumental case for reducing inequality. While these justifications are egalitarian in the broad sense, they are not so in the narrow sense, since the reason for focusing on ill-health is not itself an egalitarian one. In a narrow sense, reasons are egalitarian if they ultimately rest on the idea of why equality itself is worth pursuing or why inequality itself should be objectionable. One possible argument against economic inequality is that it gives the rich a kind of unacceptable control over the lives of the poor. If we argue that such control is unacceptable because of the unequal relationship formed between the dominated and the dominant, then this rebuttal is an egalitarian rebuttal in both the narrow sense and the broad sense. But if the argument against being controlled is based only on the fact that it leads to some loss of opportunity, then it is only an egalitarian argument in the broadest sense.
When Nozick charges that the concern for equality is a concern for maintaining a pattern of distribution, his accusation mainly challenges the narrowly defined egalitarian justification. But the envy-based retort questions whether people have any good reasons to object to inequality at all, whether narrowly egalitarian or not.
Reasons for as long as the support to reduce inequality in broadly egalitarian reasons, namely as long as it against some people have and others have content there are differences between, so it looks will support to reduce the difference, even if it did not let anyone better, and also leads to some people (rich) had a worse. The obvious irrationality embodied in this approach constitutes the basis for the so-called "downward leveling down... objection". This argument is viewed as a kind of rejection of egalitarianism in favor of priorism, because according to which we should focus only on improving the situation of the poor rather than focusing on the gap between rich and poor.
To assess these challenges, we need to explain clearly what causes people to care, to be equal and to be unequal. Such explanations are also needed to understand what is wrong with laws and institutions that promote inequality, and how changing those institutions to achieve greater equality can be justified. Even if it would be a very good thing for the poor to be better off, or for the gap between rich and poor to be reduced, it would still be wrong to achieve these goals through redistribution. Willie Sutton was, after all, a robber, and so was Robin Hood, though the motives of the latter were better than those of the former.
I think there are arguments against inequality that would meet these challenges, and in fact there are a number of different arguments that would. The task of this book is to examine the nature of these reasons. I describe this task as examining the case against inequality, not the case for equality. Because this formulation potentially encompasses broader considerations, not all of which fall on narrowly egalitarian grounds. As we shall see, some of the strongest rebuttals to inequality have to do with the consequences of inequality, and not all of them are based on the value of equality. Recognizing the diversity of arguments against inequality is important because it also helps to understand the differences in the kinds of inequalities we face. Inequality between the top 1 percent and the rest of us is one thing; The inequality between the comfortably well-off and the destitute is another matter. Racial inequality and various forms of gender inequality remain separate issues; The same is true of inequality between people in different countries. These different forms of inequality face different objections that are grouped in different ways by those moral refutations I will describe.
I will presuppose an important notion of equality, but I will not provide justification for it. This idea might be called "fundamental moral equality," the idea that everyone has moral values, regardless of their differences in race, gender, place of residence, etc. Perhaps the most important form of moral progress in centuries has been the growing acceptance of the idea of basic moral equality and the broadening of its scope of persons.
Basic moral equality is now widely accepted, even among those who reject substantive egalitarian claims. Nozick, for example, accepts basic moral equality. When he writes that "individuals have rights," he means all individuals. But he denies that we should, on moral grounds, make people equal in wealth, income or any other respect to the situation of others. It is this latter substantive equality that is the focus of this book. My question is: When and why is it morally objectionable that some people are worse off in some ways than others? In the remainder of this chapter, I will identify several arguments against inequality, many of which will be discussed in more detail in later chapters.
Status: The most important historical example of inequality to be opposed is the caste system and other social arrangements with humiliating differences in status. In these systems, the members of certain groups are regarded as inferior. They are excluded from the social services and professions that are considered the most desirable. They are even degraded into occupations that are seen as degrading to the dignity of the person and members of other groups. The evils involved in these arrangements have a comparative character: what we are objecting to is the demeaning way in which some people are regarded as inferior. So the idea at the heart of this rebuttal is an egalitarian idea. In the historical cases I mentioned, inequality based on caste, race or gender was a matter of law or deeply rooted social mores and attitudes. In some cases, these attitudes involve such broad shared beliefs that members of certain races do not have full moral standing, or even that they may "not be whole," thus negating what I have just called "fundamental moral equality." But these beliefs don't matter for the rebuttal I'm focusing on. The class system in 19th-century England, I would argue, did not address the notion that members of the lower classes were not whole people or that their suffering was morally irrelevant, but only that they were unfit or unqualified for certain social and political offices.
Economic inequality may also be opposed for the reasons I am discussing now. For extreme inequality of income and wealth can mean that the poor have to live in a way that can reasonably be seen as humiliating. As Adam Smith pointed out, a society in which some people are so much poorer than others that they live and dress in a way that makes them ashamed to appear in public constitutes a harsh rebuttal. The sin here, too, is comparative -- not in the shabby clothes or shabby housing of some people, but in the way in which they live and present themselves, which falls far below the generally accepted standards of society, and which labels them as "inferior." As the phrase "generally accepted standards" suggests, economic inequality has these effects only if there is some generally prevailing attitude about the question of what conditions a person must meet in order to be socially acceptable. So what we should be fighting against is some combination of economic inequality and social norms. I will discuss this inequality further in Chapter 3.
Control: Inequalities may also be opposed because they give some people some unacceptable control over the lives of others. For example, if a small number of people control almost all of the wealth in a society, this may give them an unacceptable degree of control over where and how others work, what they can buy, and a wide range of how their lives look. More specifically, if some people have ownership of important public media in the country, then those people may have some perverse control over how the rest of society views themselves and their lives and how they understand their society. I will discuss arguments against these two forms of control in Chapters 6, 7, and 9.
Equality of opportunity: When household income and wealth are highly unequal, an individual's prospects for success in a competitive market are greatly influenced by the family of birth. This can make it difficult or impossible to achieve economic equality of opportunity. It is generally acknowledged that this is a serious problem, although they rarely discuss the arguments in favour of equal opportunities. I will examine these reasons and their impact on inequality in Chapters 4 and 5.
Political fairness: Large inequalities in wealth and income can also undermine the fairness of political systems. The wealthy may have more power than others to influence the process of political discussion, to obtain political office for themselves and to influence other public officials. This can be seen as a special case of the control problem, since the manipulation of the political system is a way of turning economic advantage into control. But undermining fairness in political institutions is also of moral importance in other ways, such as the impact it has on the legitimacy of laws and policies. I will discuss this rebuttal of inequality in Chapter 6, and discuss the extent to which it is a problem of inequality of influence, or inequality of opportunity of influence.
The four rebuttals I've listed make it clear that some of the rebuttals to economic inequality are not just about jealousy. They also show that what these rebuttals require is not a meaningless downward flattening. People have good reasons to oppose humiliating status differences, perverse forms of control and unfair social systems, even if their elimination would not improve their well-being. A fair political system and equal economic opportunity may lead the poor to be better off, but that is not the only reason people want to have a fair system. The poor have reason to want equal opportunities (ie, to be treated fairly), even if it does not ultimately lead to them being better off. (This is the deeper question of whether the poor still have good reason to want equal opportunity if it means they get worse off economically.)
Equality Concerns: The arguments I've just outlined against inequality are based on the effects of inequality. But there are other arguments against inequality that are based on the way it is created. The rebuttal based on equal concern, for example, is of this type. This retort applies when an agency or agent is supposed to give some benefits to every member of a group, but it gives those benefits only to some members, or gives some members more benefits than others.
Suppose, for example, that municipalities are obliged to provide paved roads and sanitation to all residents. But if a municipality provides some people with a higher level of service than others without providing special certification, then it is not justified. It is certainly not right, for example, for the municipality to resurface roads more often in rich neighbourhoods than in poor ones, or to repair streets more often in areas where the mayor's friends or members of a religious group live. But not every time a city spends more money on a service for some people than it does for others, it violates the requirement of equal concern. For example, if geological factors make it more difficult to maintain road access in some areas than in others, it is not improper to invest more money in road maintenance in those areas, since justification of this practice does not require that the interests of residents in that area be given greater weight than similar interests of residents in other areas. I will discuss this requirement in Chapter 2: how we should understand it, and in what sense it is based on the idea of equality.
Fair income distribution: In 1965, the average executive at the 350 largest companies in the United States was paid 20 times as much as the average employee. The ratio grew rapidly in the last decades of the 20th century, reaching a peak of 376 to 1 in 2000. In 2014, the ratio was still 303 to 1, "higher than at any point in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s." In addition, "from 1978 to 2014, executive compensation increased by 997 percent after adjusting for inflation, nearly double the growth of the stock market and much higher than the slow increase in the average employee's annual salary over the same period, which increased by only 10.5 percent."
This inequality seems an obvious cause for opposition. But it does not arouse opposition because it signals a failure of equality concerns. The relevant benefit is not a benefit that an agent is obliged to provide but provides unequally. Rather, they are benefits that people gain by participating in the economy in some way. Yet some might argue that these figures show that the economic system that creates such inequality is unfair. A lack of equal opportunity can make the system unfair. I have already mentioned equality of opportunity, and I will discuss it more fully in Chapters 4 and 5. The current rebuttal, however, is different. Opponents argue that it is unfair based on the way unequal pay is allocated to certain economic jobs or positions, not on the lack of opportunities for people to compete for those jobs. Which raises the question: what will this fairness demand? I will discuss this in Chapter 9.
Let me summarize the discussion. I have identified six reasons, namely, six reasons to oppose inequality in all its forms and to seek to eliminate or reduce it:
(1) We should fight inequality because it creates humiliating status differences.
(2) We should fight inequality because it gives the rich unacceptable control over the poor.
(3) We should oppose inequality because it undermines economic equality of opportunity.
(4) We should oppose inequality because it undermines the fairness of the political system.
(5) We should oppose inequality because it violates an equal concern for the interests of those to whom the government has a duty to provide certain benefits.
(6) The reason we should fight against inequality of income and wealth is because it results from an unfair economic system.
According to luck egalitarianism, inequality is bad no matter where (involuntary) inequality occurs. Unlike luck egalitarianism, each of these arguments against inequality I have enumerated presupposes some form of relationship or interaction between the people involved in inequality. Unjust status inequality presupposes a relationship that justifies feelings of humiliation or impaired self-esteem. Therefore, this retort does not apply to people who do not interact with each other. The rebuttal based on control only applies if inequality involves or leads to some form of control. Moreover, a rebuttal based on the lack of equality concerns presupposes that an agent or institution is obliged to provide the relevant benefit. Finally, rebuttals based on interference with economic opportunity and political equality, as well as rebuttals based on unfair income distribution also presuppose the participation or obedience of relevant persons in a system to which the requirement of fairness applies. Once we separate inequality from all these relational and institutional factors, it is not clear that inequality should be opposed.
Many of these arguments against inequality apply only to systems with certain obligations, or only to systems associated with certain demands of justice. This fact may lead the reader to equate my view with what Thomas Nagel calls the "political concept of justice," that justice applies only within the boundaries of the nation state. But my claim is different from this concept in important ways. Not all of the arguments I have described against inequality presuppose shared institutions, and where institutions are involved, they need neither be of the same scope as, nor be enforced by, a state. For example, the kind of economic system I discuss in Chapter 8 does not respect national boundaries.
In addition to the reasons I have enumerated, we may have other reasons for equality or against inequality. But I'll focus on the rebuttals I've listed because they're important to me, especially because they're based on values that raise some interesting normative questions. Not all arguments against inequality pose such problems. For example, as I mentioned earlier, inequality may be opposed because it harms health. One could also argue that greater equality is desirable because inequality leads to social instability, or because equality contributes to economic efficiency by fostering a greater sense of solidarity and willingness to work for the common good. If the empirical assumptions underlying these claims are correct, there are good reasons to view inequality as a bad thing. However, I am not discussing these reasons, because there is nothing confusing about the values they appeal to me. For example, there is not much to ask about whether being unhealthy is bad. So whether these rebuttals apply is a purely empirical question.
Of course, it may be argued that we should not oppose the gross inequality of our society at all. Because such inequality arises from the legitimate use of individual freedoms, and any attempt to reduce it is an unjustified interference with those freedoms. I will discuss this objection in Chapter 7, and examine the ideas of liberty on which it may be based. Another possible explanation for economic inequality is that those who have more wealth deserve more pay. In Chapter 8, I examine the idea of entitlement and explore whether it can be used as a justification for economic inequality, or whether it can be used as a rebuttal to economic inequality.
In Chapter 9, I'll examine a certain notion of unfairness that underpins my last rebuttal, and I'll explore how this and other rebuttals I've discussed apply to the recent rise in inequality in the United States and other developed countries. Chapter 10 is a summary of the main thesis of the book.