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.