Egalitarians for inequality!

Everyone knows that egalitarians believe in equality. But what does that mean? If the core egalitarian idea is that all human beings have equal moral worth, then even Friedrich Hayek is an egalitarian. But if, as Rafe Champion insists, egalitarianism means "equal material rewards and a move towards equalisation of income by government action" then many of world’s most famous egalitarian philosophers are not egalitarians at all.

One of the most hotly debated ideas among egalitarians, is the idea of luck egalitarianism. According to Elizabeth Anderson this is "the view that the fundamental aim of equality is to compensate people for undeserved bad luck". One of the interesting things about this view, is that it seems to be consistent with high levels of material inequality — just as long as these inequalities come about in the right way.

According to Samuel Scheffler, "The core idea [of luck egalitarianism] is that inequalities in the advantages that people enjoy are acceptable if they derive from the choices that have been voluntarily made, but that inequalities deriving from unchosen features of people’s circumstances are unjust."

Luck egalitarianism is an industrial-strength version of equality of opportunity. The intuition behind it is that each person ought to have an equal chance at living the kind of life they value. In a luck egalitarian utopia, anyone who wanted to become rich would have the same chance as anyone else. Nobody would have an advantage based on inherited wealth or ability. Nobody would get a head start just because they were born to right parents or in the right neigbourhood.

What makes this an industrial-strength version of equality of opportunity is its approach to inherited ability. Luck egalitarians agree with Frank Knight when he writes: "There is no visible reason why anyone is more or less entitled to the earnings of inherited personal capacities than to those of inherited property in any other form".

In a recent post, Will Wilkinson says that luck egalitarianism is motivated by "a kind of extreme desert conception of justice". Or, in other words, luck egalitarians believe that "material distribution should be in accordance with desert." But while this might be true for some luck egalitarians it’s not true for all. In a 2007 paper, (and also here) Elizabeth Anderson distinguishes between two kinds of luck egalitarianism:

The first theory, desert-catering luck egalitarianism (DCLE), contrasts luck with desert. It claims to advance equality by neutralizing inequalities that are not deserved, while allowing inequalities that track differential merit. On this view, unlucky distributions are unjust because they are undeserved. The second theory, responsibility-catering luck egalitarianism (RCLE) contrasts luck with responsibility. It claims to advance equality by equalizing assets for which we are not responsible, but holds individuals responsible for outcomes that are the product of their market choices. On this view, unlucky distributions are unjust because they are the outcome of causes not connected to conduct for which the individual is responsible.

It’s worth noting that Anderson is a critic of luck egalitarianism. She invented the term in a 1999 paper ‘What is the point of equality?‘ and some of the philosophers she identified as luck egalitarians have rejected the label. But if we accept her distinction between DCLE and RCLE it’s clear that Will’s description of luck egalitarianism as an "extreme desert conception of justice" only applies to DCLE.

Responsibility-catering versions of luck egalitarianism are consistent with high levels of material inequality. This is because they allow chance to determine outcomes. As long as an individual freely chooses to take a chance, the outcome is just.

This kind of luck egalitarianism hinges on Ronald Dworkin’s distinction between ‘brute-luck’ and ‘option-luck’. The distinction works like this — if you have a low income because you were born with a disability that makes it difficult for you to work, then that’s brute bad luck. But if you gamble your life savings on a risky business venture or lose your fingers while climbing a mountain for fun, then that’s option-luck — you took a chance and you lost. Luck egalitarianism seeks to eliminate the influence of brute-luck while allowing inequality due to option-luck.

Option-luck matters. In a free market it has the potential generate huge differences in incomes. For example, many entrepreneurs face high levels of risk and uncertainty when they enter the market. It may be impossible for anyone to predict whether the business will succeed or fail. And unless there is an opportunity for high returns, no prudent person will enter the market. In such an environment, some entrepreneurs can go broke while others become wealthy. After a few iterations, the effects on income can be spectacular.

This kind of luck egalitarianism differs from desert-based or meritocratic theories because differences in incomes don’t need to have anything to do with effort or ability in order to be morally acceptable. Ability and effort might be be necessary for success, but they are not always sufficient.

Responsibility-based theories depend heavily on commonsense ideas about choice and will-power. But what it turns out that our folk-psychology is wrong? As Chris Bertram wrote in a 2006 post: "One worry that is often expressed about ‘luck egalitarianism’ is that everything, including the constitutive facts about the self that are the basis for things like hard work and choice, may turn out to be just a matter of luck." Picking up on this concern, Elizabeth Anderson, says that desert-catering theorists argue that we should adjust for differences in people’s ability to make choices and follow through:

Some people, due to disadvantages in genes, temperament, upbringing, and environment over which they have no choice or control, find it difficult and painful to imagine various options, evaluate risks, foresee outcomes, choose wisely and carry out decisions with determination and effort, while resisting temptation. Others, due to good fortune, find these executive virtues easy and pleasant to exercise. To correct for these brute-luck inequalities, desert-catering theorists allow attributive responsibility to vary by degrees. For example, they would find a mentally disabled teenager to be less attributively responsible for shoplifting than a teenager of normal intelligence.

What’s happening here is that the clear distinction between brute-luck and option-luck is breaking down. As Paula England and Nancy Folbre explain, economists tend see impulsiveness and risk taking in terms of preferences. If a person has trouble delaying gratification, then an economist might explain this by appealing to ‘time preference’ — how much the person values rewards now rather than later. And if they are constantly engaging in risky behaviours like street racing and unprotected sex, an economist might appeal to the person’s low level of ‘risk aversion‘. In contrast, England and Folbre argue that self-regulation can also be seen as a skill — a form of human capital. Psychologist Roy Baumeister likens self-control to a muscle that can be built up through exercise.

What all of this means for politics and policy making is anybody’s guess. If the distinction between brute-luck and option-luck turns out to be this complex, how are policy makers supposed to make sure that unjust inequalities don’t occur?

Fortunately, this isn’t my problem. I don’t find luck egalitarianism persuasive at all.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Egalitarians for inequality!

  1. Outstanding post! Thanks.

  2. FDB says:

    “In a free market it has the potential generate huge differences in incomes. For example, many entrepreneurs face high levels of risk and uncertainty when they enter the market. It may be impossible for anyone to predict whether the business will succeed or fail. And unless their [sic] is an opportunity for high returns, no prudent person will enter the market.”

    It might also be the case that they won’t enter the market without the knowledge that they will be looked after in some minimal fashion in the event of failure.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    FDB – I think you’re right. And maybe this also applies to reforms which wind back government protection and open national economies up to global competition. In a small economy like Australia’s perhaps voters will be more likely to accept reform if there’s a safety net. So instead of protecting industries, governments protect individual workers and their families.

    And thanks for the proofreading. I’ve fixed the mistake.

  4. FDB says:

    On reflection I can’t believe I’ve not heard that argument (wot I made) before. Welfare stimulates speculation and innovation – sounds cool! But I’m sure it’s been said in one of the million important things I’ll probably never read.

  5. Don Arthur says:

    FDB – It sounds cool but maybe we should look at some data before we get too excited.

    There seems to be plenty of speculation and innovation going on in the United States even though US governments offer fewer protections than many other developed countries.

    Maybe being able to declare bankruptcy and get a job is all the protection most entrepreneurs need?

  6. FDB says:

    Spoilsport. ;)

  7. Like you Don I don’t fancy ‘luck egalitarianism’. But I still would have liked a bit more guidance on your own thinking on the various distinctions being made.

    We tend to believe in compensating for ‘disability’. Why do we do that? I’m sure some people think that it’s to compensate for bad luck. But that’s rather bloodless isn’t it? We do it out of compassion and sympathy. Because we associate helping someone who’s disabled with virtue. Or even someone who’s weak – standing up for women – now more for the elderly – in public transport.

    I wonder if ‘desert’ is a bit of a stranger here. Hayek didn’t want to run with desert as a criterion for choice of social systems. I guess for pragmatic reasons – it leads to dysfunctional societies and economies, and also for liberal reasons – people differ on desert. (People also differ on dessert, but that is another matter.)

    Adam Smith reckoned that capitalism is a better guarantor of desert than other systems, but, like Hayek knew it was far from perfect.

    A lot of us also believe in a broad re-distribution of income from rich to poor. We defend it on fairness grounds, which is close to arguing for ‘desert’. But people don’t agree on desert, whereas they can get to stronger agreement on broad redistribution.

    Anyway, this is rather inconsequential rambling. Perhaps you can improve on it Don – or anyone else. I’m suggesting that while we feel instinctively comfortable with things like aid to the disabled, somehow we’ve imagined that we’re doing it for reasons of ‘desert’ whereas perhaps we’re doing it to alleviate suffering – out of something more immediate – sympathy. And then we rationalise it with a grander political justification. We think we’re doing it for reasons of desert. And that gets us into trouble.

  8. Ken Parish says:

    From memory, Dworkin’s version of egalitarianism (which obviously does qualify as luck egalitarianism whatever he himself asserts) includes things like lack of intelligence, ugliness, shortness, lack of strength, speed or agility as attributes for which compensation should be provided to achieve a level playing field. They’re aspects of “brute-luck”.

    The whole concept seems wildly impractical even if you accept Dworkin’s premise. How would these things sensibly be measured?

    Then, as Don mentions, many of the things Dworkin accepts as matters of choice/option and so not compensable (including capacity for hard work and sacrifice) may themselves be externally determined (whether by nature or nurture) to a considerable extent and therefore also in reality matters of “brute-luck”, so the entire concept then lacks a principled basis.

    That’s essentially why I reckon Hayek and Smith got it roughly correct, albeit that we need a “welfare liberalism” overlay to provide decent education and health care for everyone and a basic welfare income safety net for the unemployed (with mutual obligation spurs to retraining and re-employment), sick, old, disabled etc. i.e. those who cannot currently earn a basic income in the market economy without public (or charitable if you’re the sort of libertarian who hates the state but thinks private charity is grouse) assistance. Such a system doesn’t need to be based on sympathy, compassion or whatever as Nicholas suggests but simply on the utilitarian (Rawlsian veil of ignorance) “there but for the grace of God go I” principle.

  9. FDB – The welfare state encourages risk-taking idea is usually framed in the negative, as encouraging people to do stupid things knowing that the state will pick up the pieces.

  10. James Farrell says:

    So what’s the problem with ‘luck egalitarianism’? I’ve never heard the term before, and I can’t see any need for it, but it doesn’t sound any different from equality of opportunity, which I thought was the foundation stone of social democracy.

    The reasons why some people are richer than others boil down to (a) effort, (b) ruthlessness and (c) luck (including the circumstances of one’s

    There might exist people who want to eliminate those inequalities that are due to effort — that is, to achieve equality of outcomes — but they would be such a tiny minority that I don’t know why you would waste effort arguing with them. On the other hand, not even arch-conservatives and extreme laissez-fairists want to see people prospering through dishonesty and bullying.

    So that leaves (c). What separates conservatives and libertarians from social democrats is their attitude to the factors we don’t control. The former downplay their quantitative significance, and, to the extent that they acknowledge the role of luck, they devote their energies to devising practical and philosophical objections to any scheme that is proposed to compensate for its effects. The latter emphasise the role of chance, and see the state as a vehicle for spreading risk — especially those risks we don’t undertake voluntarily.

    What’s either new or problematic about any of this?

  11. Mike Pepperday says:

    James, I suspect quite a lot people adhere to the equality of outcomes, providing you don’t get too literal. It is pretty fundamental to the left for if inequalities are due to effort it implies that people only do things for selfish incentive which is demeaning of humans.

    I am bemused by luck equality being posited as industrial equality of opportunity. I have only a passing acquaintance but had assumed it was an industrial strength equality of outcome argument: if what one gets is a matter of luck, then outcomes are undeserved so redistribution to equalise outcomes is appropriate.

    The Elizabeth Anderson quote in the post is getting at it (“Some people…”). You may attribute your prosperity to hard work and his impoverishment to slackness but really it was all luck: you were born with the genes that incline you diligence, or you had the right potty training, and he didn’t.

  12. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – An “industrial strength equality of outcome argument” is exactly what luck egalitarianism is not.

  13. Don Arthur says:

    Or maybe I can put it another way. There are fatalists and there are luck egalitarians. But there are NO fatalistic luck egalitarians.

  14. James Farrell says:

    Mike, of course there have been attempts to put ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ into practice, and it is probably still part of the official ideology in Cuba. But I was really talking about political philosophy in the modern, developed world, as represented by the readers of this blog.

    In any case, I still don’t know what Don has against luck egalitarianism. I can see that there’s plenty of scope to disagree about how much risk is truly avoidable, by living more responsibly, buying private insurance, and so on. Those are the arguments that separate social democrats and moderate conservatives. But unless you’re a social Darwinist or a property-rights fetishist, why would you object to taxing inherited wealth to support the orphaned, the sick and the maimed?

  15. Mike Pepperday says:

    James, it’s a question of degree. If you insist that E of Outcome has to be exact, its sympathisers would back away. The E of Outcome proponent is not about the sick and maimed (they are clear-cut) but shares Henry Lawson’s concern:

    “He is silenced and starved and drilled in jail and a waster’s son was he.
    His sins were written before he was born. Keep step, One-Hundred-and-Three.”

    It is not the criminal’s own fault. I think there are plenty of people whose sympathies are along these lines.

    My one brush with the luck concept was a seminar where the presenter actually confused equalities of outcome and opportunity. Maybe it, too, is a matter of degree, viz:

    1. Compensate only for bad luck hence inequalities due to merit can reach any level – that’s an E of Opp position.

    2. Compensate for bad luck but everything is luck (your diligence genes, your being born into a family which gave you ideals and the ability to delay gratification, etc). So ultimately there is no merit. So redistribute thoroughly – an E of Outcome position.

    This last is not fatalism, Don. The fatalist is a social isolate. As a fatalist I feel powerless – I just grab what’s going when it’s going and I don’t philosophise and I’m not into redistributions unless someone is redistributing toward me in which case I will snatch it quick before unpredictable and powerful forces take it away again.

  16. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – Is this the Thompsom, Ellis & Wildavsky fatalism?

  17. Mike Pepperday says:

    Yes indeed – or Mary Douglas really. But not relying on the authority of any theorist. Douglas deduces her types. Thompson et al theoretically do too, but they are a bit too breezy (even whimsical) and rather abstract.

    But whatever a fatalist is taken to be, it is not someone who can believe in redistribution.

  18. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – ok, I know what you mean by fatalism.

    Are you saying that you think luck egalitarians are demanding equality of outcomes?

  19. Mike Pepperday says:

    Don, my total reading about luck egalitarians consists of your post!

    The first two sentences of the Elizabeth Anderson quote (Some people) express E of outcome concerns. Or, better put: they are the sort of thing people concerned for E of outcome get worked up about.

    The advocate of E of outcome is against E of opportunity but not in the past. This advocate is saying “Disadvantage is due to lack of opportunity in the past (genes, upbringing) so redistribution is required.” This is a firm position: the inequality proves the lack of past opportunity which caused the inequality.

    Does that mean the E of outcome advocate would like to see E of opportunity. No! It would have been a good idea back then but the inequality is here and now and should be fixed. Creating, now, E of opportunity would be destructive because the only point in E of opp is so that people can compete and “get ahead” which means the advocates of E of opp are out to create a competitive, dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost, unequal society…

    I can’t really see that the concept of “luck” actually adds anything to the two concepts of equality.

  20. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – I think Anderson called it ‘luck egalitarianism’ because it’s chief aim is “to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs”.

    It’s not the same as equality of outcomes because it doesn’t aim to eliminate the impact of freely made choices (eg you decide to burn down your house for fun) or option luck (eg you put your life savings into a risky tech start-up and lose everything).

    But it’s not ordinary equality of outcomes either. This is because differences in things like inherited ability are treated as brute luck.

    I think the distinction between brute luck and option luck adds something to the debate. Perhaps not everybody does.

    BTW: I can’t think of any egalitarian philosophers who take an equality of outcomes position. As far as I can tell the position is a straw man.

  21. James Farrell says:

    Mike, the idea of giving a fair go to people born on the wrong side of the tracks is exactly what equality of opportunity is about. And, as I keep repeating, the question of where bad luck ends and bad management (i.e. voluntarily accepted risk) begins, is at the heart of most quarrels between conservatives and social democrats.

    What you haven’t demonstrated is that there is a significant school of thought that would confiscate the earnings of ants and give them to grasshoppers, even after any differences due to luck had already been eliminated.

  22. Mike Pepperday says:

    Don, option luck depends upon the existence of free choice. If you burn down your house or blow your savings, wasn’t it because of your brute bad luck in not inheriting the ability to make sensible choices? Yes, it’s extreme but where is the line?

    This example may be in the wrong direction. An opponent of “freely” choosing might be more worried about making successful choices – profiting on the house or the share price, ie unfairly benefiting from your inherited competencies. That means other people become losers who didn’t actually do anything. Compounding the sin will the view that the profits are parasitic.

    I am no philosopher but some reading a month or two ago left me with the impression that philosophers were generally against equality of opportunity! Here are a couple of examples I can pull up readily:

    Schaar, John H. 1981 [1967]. Equality of opportunity and beyond. in Legitimacy in the modern state, edited by John H Schaar. London: Transaction Publishers.

    Joseph, Lawrence B. 1980. Some ways of thinking about equality of opportunity. The Western Political Quarterly 33(3):393-400.

    E of opp is essentially concern for fair process. E of outcome is a concern for a fair outcome.

    What the philosophers don’t seem to discuss but lawyers and political scientists do, is equality under the law (or equal treatment of equal people) which is the pragmatic compromise of the other two – ie let the properly qualified person interpret the official rules to achieve a proper outcome. That will be by definition both a fair process and a fair outcome.

    Maybe the independent, individualistic, equality of opportunity position is currently so pervasive that it is becoming impossible to be forthrightly for E of outcome, so one has to argue in terms of luck and deserts in order to be in the debate. Put another way: could luck and deserts be a backs-to-the-wall attempt to rescue SOME equality of outcome?

  23. Mike Pepperday says:

    James, I don’t think we disagree. Yes, equality of opportunity will send all the kids to the same quality of schools so that they all get an equal opportunity to make a success of their lives.

    But then X commits a crime and those who would say it is not his fault will not admit that he really had an equal opportunity. Never (unless he is actually out of the aristocracy).

    I can’t set out schools of thought but isn’t that what affirmative action is all about? Yes, that is only for the unlucky but isn’t the unluck never-ending? Yes, the school that wants redistribution after the luck is eliminated surely does not exist. But E of outcome proponents will never recognise said elimination. Grasshoppers are born that way!

  24. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – Thanks for the two references. I hadn’t come across either.

    I was a bit surprised by this comment:

    What the philosophers dont seem to discuss but lawyers and political scientists do, is equality under the law (or equal treatment of equal people) which is the pragmatic compromise of the other two – ie let the properly qualified person interpret the official rules to achieve a proper outcome. That will be by definition both a fair process and a fair outcome.

    Maybe my experience of the literature is biased, but it seems to me that there are plenty of philosophers who discuss Rawls’ ideas about ‘pure procedural justice.’ For example, here’s Elizabeth Anderson:

    In a system of pure procedural justice, the justice of outcomes is not definable apart from the procedures that produce them. Judgments of justice attach fundamentally to rules or procedures; outcomes are just in virtue of the justice of the process that produces them. Games exemplify a system of pure procedural justice. As long as the rules of a game are fair, any outcome that results from everyone’s following the rules is fair.

  25. Mike Pepperday says:

    Don, perhaps I stand corrected. Or perhaps not.

    Anderson writes on procedural justice, like Rawls, but then I suppose any philosopher who is trying to find a middle road on equality (which seems to me to be something any liberal has to address) will be seeking to establish rules, or principles that can be made into rules. What about my specific point of “equality under the law”?

    This is the equality that Anatole France was caustic about: “The law, in a majestic concern for equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal their bread.” Adam Smith said it more prosaically: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

    I can list some pol sci and lawyer discussions of this but I don’t know if there is a philosophy debate on it. Do you know any? We have these principles of E of outcome and opportunity but the real world has to put up with the law. What should be its principle?

  26. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – Im not sure what youre getting at here.

    The debate over rules is a debate over what the laws should be. As Rawls writes, the legal system is a public system of rules addressed to rational beings for the organization of their conduct in the pursuit of their substantive interests.

    As for equality under the law, isnt this really just a demand that the rules are public, that similar cases are treated similarly, that there are no bills of attainder, and the like? If the laws only apply to some people some of the time then youre not living under the rule of law.

    Laws which satisfy the constraints of pure procedural justice can constrain inequalities of wealth and income. Anderson explains why.

  27. Mike Pepperday says:

    I think you might have answered my question – equality before the law is not much discussed in philosophy. Like some of her commentators, I didn’t completely follow the Anderson blog.

    There is a Wikipedia stub with this:

    According to the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, equality before the law and material equality are incompatible, arguing that material inequality is a natural consequence of legal equality: “From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time”.

    Hayek seems to assume equality under law. He doesn’t mention that it is also in conflict with with E of opportunity. In practice women, children, the insane get different treatment and we licence some people to sleep under bridges whenever they qualify through some means test. For example legal aid is to provide something like equality of opportunity to rescue people from the rigours of equality before the law.

    We have drifted from luck which began this thread and of which I remain sceptical. Here are a couple of references talking about the three kinds of equality.

    Miller, David. 1976. Social justice. Oxford: Clarendon.
    Feldman, Stanley. 1999. Economic values and inequality. in Measures of political attitudes, edited by John P Robinson, Phillip R Shaver, and Lawrence S Wrightsman San Diego: Academic Press.

    A Feldman quote:

    “Egalitarianism has several distinct dimensions that must be distinguished. There is first equality of opportunity, the view that each person should have the same initial chance of succeeding. Then there is formal or legal equality, the view that all people should be treated equally. Finally there is equality of rewards, a desire usually less for complete equality than for a limited range of wealth…” (161)

  28. Don Arthur says:

    Mike – There’s plenty of debate among philosophers about things like affirmative action legislation.

    Maybe you could me what you mean by equality before the law and give me some other examples of things that violate it. For example, if we legislated for a negative income tax, would that be a violation of equality under law?

  29. James Farrell says:

    Mike: I think we are fundamentally agreement. I’ll just add one more observation.

    While there may agreement that the ant’s rewards resulted from his efforts, and the grasshopper’s misery and deprivation from his indolence and irresponsibility, it will be harder to get agreement on whether the two insects’ rewards and punishments are proportional to their respective actions and inactions. A related question is, if I squander my opportunities at one point in my life, how long must I wait before I’m entitled, in the name of equal opportunity, to another chance? Or does equal opportunity mean only one opportunity each? These are pretty intractable questions, but not enough to make the principle of equal opportunity — or luck egalitarianism, if anyone insists on that term — invalid.

    Don: you are pretty adept at directing other people’s positions. But what about laying your own cards on the table. Do you currently subscribe to any form of egalitarianism, and if so, what?

  30. James Farrell says:

    dissecting, I mean, not directing.

  31. Don Arthur says:

    James – Do I subscribe to any form of egalitarianism? Yes I do.

    But if you mean, do I subscribe to some neat and tidy off-the-shelf position that I think is invulnerable to criticism, then no.

    A few years ago I got up in front of a class of undergrads and told them that there were three forms of equality — equality before the law, equality of opportunity, and equality of outcome. It all seemed simple enough at the time.

    I may also have suggested that any government that tried to put equality of outcomes into practice would find itself thrown out of office because most voters think that equal rewards for unequal performance is unfair. And naturally, attempting to make incomes perfectly equal would wreck the economy. And yes, simple equality before the law would mean letting people starve in the streets.

    But now I’m not really sure that I knew what I was talking about. It’s fine to say that equality before the law is what Robert Nozick advocated, but I think I need to do better than that. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve got a bulletproof answer (which is why I was interested in seeing Mike have a go).

    As an egalitarian I agree that all human beings are entitled to equal concern and respect. But it’s not entirely clear to me what this means in practice.

    First up, I think it’s ridiculous to limit the discussion to wealth and income. I agree with Elizabeth Anderson when she says that egalitarianism is opposed to inegalitarianism:

    Inegalitarianism asserted the justice or necessity of basing social order on a hierarchy of human beings, ranked according to intrinsic worth. Inequality referred not so much to distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons.

    In making the argument Anderson refers to Iris Marion Young. I find Young’s work interesting but I’m not entirely convinced by all her arguments.

    Clearly human wellbeing is as much about our relationships with each other as it is about our relationship with things. For example, imagine that everyone believes that you are a violent child molester (even though it’s not true). Imagine that you can never clear your name or disguise your identity. Your name and face are on billboards. Everyone is civil to you and you can still work, shop etc. Is there any amount of money that can compensate you for this? Probably not.

    So I think that equality has something to do with social inclusion. However I’m not sure what this means for policy.

    And nobody I know is in favour of equal outcomes in all domains of life. For example, I’ve never heard of an egalitarian trying to outlaw the Olympic games because it distributes medals unequally. And I’ve never heard anyone argue that all races should be handicap races so that everyone has an equal chance of winning gold if they train hard enough.

    Michael Walzer wrote a book called ‘Spheres of Justice’ where he invoked the idea of complex equality (John Elster has also written about something similar — ‘Local Justice’). The idea is that what counts as equality depends on the institutional context. To me this sounds reasonable. But it’s a difficult position to develop.

    Avishai Margalit has written a book called the ‘The Decent Society’ that argues that a decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people. It’s a simply written book but I think it’s dealing with something profound.

    One problem that I think is very difficult is the scope of egalitarian institutions. John Rawls has an argument that’s made explicit in the ‘Law of Peoples’ that the difference principle only applies within a particular nation. There’s something to this, but there’s also much more to say.

    So the truth is, I don’t have a neat position that I can outline to you and then defend. What I have is a set of ideas and problems that I want to discuss. Sometimes discussing them makes things clearer and sometimes it just makes things more complicated.

    One thing I am willing to say with confidence is that we should not turn the country over to philosophers.

  32. derrida derider says:

    Paul Krugman summed this up in a simple parable here:

    “There are two societies. In one, everyone makes a living at some occupation–say, fishing–in which the amount people earn over the course of a year is fairly closely determined by their skill and effort. Incomes will not be equal in this society–some people are better at fishing than others, some people are willing to work harder than others–but the range of incomes will not be that wide. And there will be a sense that those who catch a lot of fish have earned their success.

    In the other society, the main source of income is gold prospecting. A few find rich mother lodes and become wealthy. Others find smaller deposits, and many find themselves working hard for very little reward. The result will be a very unequal distribution of income. Some of this will still reflect effort and skill: Those who are especially alert to signs of gold, or willing to put in longer hours prospecting, will on average do better than those who are not. But there will be many skilled, industrious prospectors who do not get rich and a few who become immensely so.

    Surely the great majority of Americans, no matter how conservative, instinctively feel that a nation that resembles the second imaginary society is a worse place than one that resembles the first. Yet there is also no question that our nation today is much less like the benign society of fishermen–and much more like the harsh society of prospectors–than it was a generation ago.”

  33. James Farrell says:

    Don, I don’t want you to have an off-the-shelf position, but I think that it should be possible to start with some basic principles and work up. Obviously I suffer from the economist’s vice, but my instinct is to do some simple thought experiments, see what ethical principles I would draw from those, and then see if I can combine and/or modify them to cover more complex cases.

    In this light, it seems to me that what you’re calling luck egalitarianism is an entirely reasonable first step in developing a position regarding state redistributive measures. The next step comes when you notice that some bad luck is avoidable if people are willing to insure against it, and that, in between the extremes, there’s a wide spectrum of cases. But these difficulties are not a reason to repudiate the principle. Nor is the fact that human dignity isn’t just a matter of material wealth.

  34. James Farrell says:

    I hadn’t seen DD’s intervention at #32 when I wrote the above, but it seems to illustrate my point about economists and their thought experiments.

  35. Mike Pepperday says:

    Orright. I will now have a go as Don put it. I have no better idea of my own position than Don but I wish to decline to be normative. I will go back to Don in front of that class of undergrads with his three types of equality. James will be pleased for it is a thought experiment starting with some basic principles and working up. First I discuss ideal types then I apply them to equality and get a surprising result.

    Ideal types are an effective path to understanding. They might be THE path but at any rate, a path. Galileo insisted on discussing a pendulum that had no friction, had a weightless string and a weight that took up no physical space. His friend and patron, Guidibaldo del Monte, made fun of him because this did not correspond to reality. Galileos approach was the fruitful one. I get this homily from: Matthews, Michael R. 1993. Constructivism and science education: some epistemological problems. Journal of Science Education and Technology 2(1):359-370.

    Examples are everywhere. Newtons first law says an undisturbed body moves in a straight line at a constant velocity forever. There is not a single instance in the heavens or on earth yet this ideal concept is essential to myriad undertakings. Recently I glanced through a large anatomy textbook. It had lots of photos but it was also full of sketches. A sketch conveys by idealising. A political cartoon does something similar. In short, we understand the world through ideal types. Platonic forms, if you wish. Nothing normative here: thered be an ideal tyranny, an ideal cancer.

    Weber introduced the ideal type to social science but social scientists generally dont apply it. Let me do so with equality.

    The ideal types hardly need defining. Equality of outcome would be everyone having exactly equal access to the same resources, i.e. the same wealth and the same status. Equality of opportunity would be everyone having the same chance to make a go of his or her life. At birth? At age 21? Take your pick: the essential point is the notion of exact equality of opportunity. These definitions are themselves not crucial. Important seems to be (1) they are ideal, i.e. extreme or pure, and (2) they are different, i.e. not to be confused – unlike much discussion where they do get mixed up.

    A liberal has to be in favour of both. Lets insist on both.

    Premise: equal opportunity, when grasped, leads to unequal outcomes which provide unequal opportunities to the winners. Therefore: (a) to preserve equal opportunity, winners must withdraw from the social environment; (b) to preserve equality of outcome, all winners must win the same prize. After withdrawal, if both equalities are to continue for the winners, they would need to join a new set of equals for an equal chance at another common prize.

    To achieve all this will require obedience to rules which will require rule makers and rule enforcers i.e. hierarchy. Conclusion: hierarchy is the only way to achieve both equalities simultaneously. I expect the corollary to hold too: that the only way to make a hierarchy is to introduce the other two equalities simultaneously.

    An astonishing deduction, surely. Let us look at it a bit more discursively.

    All members of a given rank must receive the same benefits (that being very nearly what rank means) while at the same time they all have, in principle, the same opportunity to compete to rise to the next rank. Inequality is inherent to hierarchy (that being very nearly what hierarchy means) and the higher the rank the greater the opportunities and the outcomes, but within each rank equality of both outcome and opportunity obtains. So the simultaneous realising of those two kinds of equality can be achieved through equality under the rules, rules which stipulate equal treatment for equal people. This last is the ideal equality before the law.

    Apart from the unexpectedness of such an illiberal result to a liberal ambition, the interesting thing is that the solution turned out to be the third ideal type. These three concepts of equality have been around for, I suppose, a couple of centuries and no one (it seems) ever noticed that they fit together neatly.

    You can see why I back away from the normative and why I was (and am) keen to know what philosophers have had to say about equality under law.

  36. Mike Pepperday says:

    Gee, did I frighten everyone away?

  37. Don Arthur says:

    James & Mike – I’ll be offline for a few days. So I’m not ignoring anyone I’ve just had to sacrifice blogging to the demands of work, life etc.

  38. James Farrell says:

    You’ve obviously scared Don off, Mike. ‘Work’ and ‘life’: who’s he kidding?

    The sociolgist’s ideal types serve the same purpose as the economist’s little two-person, two-good economies, so I can relate to the approach. I haven’t seen the idea applied to rules or principles before — as opposed to people or institutions — so that wasn’t quite what I expected, but I’m here to learn, after all.

    I can’t say I quite understand what you’re doing here, since we all seemed to be agreed that equality of outcome is a red herring, because no-one is advocating it anyway. I’m also uneasy about your ‘premise’ that ‘unequal outcomes… provide unequal opportunities to the winners.’ It all depends on the rules of the game, doesn’t it? That’s what I was getting when I asked how often, in the name of equal opportunity, one gets a second chance. In most games, you can press an advantage up to a point, but at certain intervals — after a ’round’ has been played, or a goal scored, the players line up in their starting positions. The goal of equal opportunity, while in my view indispensible, has to be fleshed out with answers to these kinds of questions befoer it can bee applied in practice.

  39. Mike Pepperday says:

    I assumed that the rules of life are that when you have a win, it puts you in a better position to compete – that you don’t line up again with everyone at the starting position. If you grant that, then the premise would be sound.

    I think it is the case. For example: To “get ahead” you need to inspire others’ confidence in your capability – otherwise you won’t get the loan, you won’t find a business partner, etc. If you then have a win you can drive a smarter car and live in a better suburb. Your visible success will get you a bigger loan, allow entree to bigger business deals. It just would not be “getting ahead” if you started again from the same position. That is only an example but I think it is a general phenomenon: “nothing succeeds like success”.

    Hopefully that saves me from answering details of what the ideal type of equality of opportunity is. I reckon all I really need there is that the two kinds of equality cannot be confused. I do not agree E of outcome is a red herring: it is what drives charity, for example. As I said above, I think the sentiment is widespread on the left.

    This ideal-type approach is indeed the same as what economics does with its homo economicus and, I think, other propositions. (“Full information” is one and there must be heaps of them but I’m not an economist.) And economics is the one social science that seems to be effective.

    So what does my application of the approach bring? You mention the ideal type “two-person” economy. I suggest this is a mistake, that it cannot exist – if you allow that we do attempt to apply both equalities. I showed that both can only be had in a hierarchy. But a hierarchy will require that the ideal minimum economy has to be three persons. Two of them are in a state of equal opportunity while the third enforces the rules to ensure that the winner (if any) withdraws.

    As economics recognises, regulation and contracts and courts are essential. The two person economy ignores this. As I wrote here or on Quiggin a month or two ago, the market cannot work unless there is a policeman standing by – a big chap in a uniform. The “minimum economy” is two people doing the deal plus a man with a gun.

    Another place this is overlooked is in game theory experimentation. There are three players: the two whose interaction gets written up and the third one in the white coat who makes and enforces the rules.

    I say: no hierarchy – no market. It may be rude for me to tell economists they need to review their basic model but my deduction seems pretty sound and it does correspond to the reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.