Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Equality or liberty?

One of the classes in undergraduate philosophy I took many years ago was on distributive justice, the question of what a just distribution of social goods looks like and how to pursue it. One of the key questions in the course concerned the relative roles of notions of equality and freedom.

At one end of the scale is strict egalitarianism, in which all resources are to be redistributed so that all have the same amount of everything. But this immediately runs into trouble the moment anyone tries to use of these resources. Imagine that a nation tries this approach, and tallies up all the goods held by its members and decides to spread them evenly amongst its citizens. If, during this redistribution, I lose most of my books (since I assume I probably have many more than average) and gain a few shoes (since I don't seem to have nearly as many of these as some people), then it seem that I've actually moved to a less desirable state. I've lost something I value highly and gained something I care little about (beyond having one decent pair). And if, as a result, I decide to swap some of my excess shoes with a neighbour to regain a few books, then we have introduced inequality into the system.

At the other end of the scale was strict libertarianism, in which the exploitation and exchange of resources is determined only by the market. Everything is for sale to the highest bidder as long as any contracts for sale are entered into freely, then the results can fall where they may. Those with the ability to gain more for themselves can do so unimpeded by any obligation to those who can't or won't (unless they voluntarily choose to give out of charity).

Egalitarianism identifies justice with a particular outcome (equality in the distribution of the relevant social goods), libertarianism with a particular procedure (agreements to which both parties consent). Of course, most people fall somewhere in the middle in an attempt to gain elements of both.

What I remember about the course was a very simplified illustration where we were asked to choose between various possible political and economic arrangements which were assumed to give various distributions of wealth and other social goods. The numbers represent some arbitrary unit of material wealth. Which of these systems would you prefer if you knew the outcome was going to be the following for one fifth of the population?

A. 5 - 5 - 5 - 5 - 5
B. 9 - 7 - 5 - 4 - 4
C. 20 - 10 - 5 - 3 - 2

Notice that option A is strictly egalitarian; all segments of society share its wealth equally. Options B and C are mild and more extreme versions of inequality, though with larger total wealth. In trying to evaluate these admittedly fairly abstract examples, one of the things that came up in the class was the moral relevance of knowing where the poverty line was. If on "5" you could still feed, clothe and house a family with decent medical care and the opportunity to perform meaningful tasks in a community, but on "4" you couldn't, then the first option is looking pretty good. If you could do it on "4" but no lower, then the middle option might be preferred. However, if it only takes "2" to do so, then the last option might also be morally permissible and have the advantage of being a bigger pie overall, if that is something that is important for some reason.

There are many shortcomings to this simple exercise, two of which are the respective ecological costs of the various options (is the third pie the largest because it is degrading the ecological health of the planet faster than the other two?) and the social cost of inequality (would the middle group in option C actually be less happy than those with "5" in option B or A because they would be comparing themselves unfavourably to those with "20"?). Nonetheless, it focuses our attention on a question of justice. Is there something wrong with some having much while others have little or is it only when some are in absolute need of some basic good that there is a problem? That is, grinding poverty may be agreed to be a social evil, but is inequality per se?

An interesting recent US survey into perceptions of equality was conducted by professors at Harvard and Duke. The image below summarising their results is striking in demonstrating not only that a random sample of 5,000 respondents would prefer a more egalitarian society than they currently perceive to be the case, but also that their perception significantly underestimates just how deep the divide between rich and poor in their own nation actually is.

Indeed, inequality in America requires more than a single graph to grasp. Here are a whole string of them. How similar or different are other countries? I don't have comparable statistics to hand, though my impression is that the current phase of capitalism over the last few decades is increasing inequality around the world.

Why is this a problem? The social effects of inequality are explored in this book, but the larger problem is that our current economic model is thoroughly unsustainable and the present levels of inequality will only lead to more pain down the road once the promise of forever growing material wealth for all fades from view. More on that anon.