Political equality and material inequality

by Harry on August 18, 2004

In his reply to Chris B’s response to his article on desert Will Wilkinson expresses dismay that no-one has taken up a point he made in his original piece, viz,

Material inequality is one kind of inequality among many. Political
inequality is more troubling by far, for political power is the power to
push people around. Coercion is wrong on its face, and so the existence
of political inequality requires a specially strong and compelling
justification. However, if the luck argument cuts against moral
entitlement to material holdings, it cuts equally against any moral
entitlement to political power.

He goes on, in the original piece, to say that

The justification for political power is generally sought in the “consent” of the people through free, fair and open elections. Yet the fact that someone has gained power by a democratic ballot can be no more or less relevant than the fact that Warren Buffet gained his billions through a series of fair, voluntary transactions. John Edwards (who, by the way, is a mill worker’s son) didn’t deserve his luxuriant tresses and blinding grin. Reagan didn’t deserve movie-star name recognition. Bushes don’t deserve to be Bushes. Kennedys don’t deserve to be Kennedys. Kerry’s war medals? Please.
If the luck argument is any good, then democratic choice and the resulting distribution of coercive political power is also, as Yglesias says, “chance all the way down.” And if luck negates the moral right to keep and dispose of one’s stuff, it also negates the right to take and dispose of others’ stuff.

One possible reason that no-one went after this is that it is not clear what is going on. It is as obvious to me that no-one deserves political power as that no-one deserves their talents, or deserves to live in an environment in which those talents attract the contingent rewards that they happen to attract. (Steffi Graff’s income more than doubled in the year after Monica Seles was stabbed. Did she deserve to be in that environment? No. So in what sense did she deserve her increased income? Not any foundational moral sense, surely?) Is Wilkinson denying this? Politicians who win do not deserve to win at the very least because they do not deserve to live in systems which reward their particular talents (very few UK MPs would reach the top in the American political system, and very few American members of Congress would reach the top in the UK system; desert just doesn’t help out here). There are good, desert-free, reasons for designing a political system one way or another. I don’t see how desert could possibly come into it.

Is Wilkinson saying that there is an incoherence in the anti-desert people’s position? He seems to think that the anti-desert position is something like this: we do not have a right to the stuff we have because we don’t deserve it, but we do have a right to take and dispose of others’ stuff. I don’t see any contradiction within that position, though I would add that I’ve never heard of anyone holding it. It isn’t incoherent because the anti-desert position does not say that we have no right to do what we don’t deserve to do. It says that desert is not going to serve as the basis for property rights or any other kinds of political rights—something else must, then. So it is entirely possible that this other basis, while it does not generate a right to dispose of one’s ‘own’ property, does generate a right to redistribute property (though, probably, within strict guidelines). But he has also misdescribed the anti-desert egalitarian’s position. I don’t believe that in redistributing the wealth that Bill Gates holds we would be ‘taking and disposing of’ his stuff. It is, simply, not his, because he has no right to it, and other people do.

Wilkinson’s elevation of political equality over material equality is also confusing, given his (broadly libertarian) reasons for valuing political equality, because that is a value that supports taking measures to decrease existing levels of material inequality, or at least to take measures which insulate political processes against existing material inequality. Why should Warren Buffett, or George Soros, have a better chance of getting their way in politics (a better chance of being able to ‘push people around’) simply because they have more wealth than I do? Why should big corporations get more say simply because they are able to make credible threats that they will withdraw their investments from a country or a state? The insulation of the political process from private wealth is an imperative if you don’t want some people to be able to push others around who lack the reciprocal power. Admittedly the American political system, with its supine attitude toward large concentrations of private wealth, is unusually vulnerable to the rent-seeking activities of the rich. But the rich enjoy more political power than others in (almost) all liberal democracies. And, of course, there are other values at stake—the quality of political deliberation, distributive justice, etc. But a standard libertarian view is not to care much about those (I don’t mean that libertarians themselves refrain from providing high quality contributions to political debate, just that they don’t support quality-enhancing regulation of the fora for political debate). Anyway, my point is that trenchant advocacy of political equality is odd in a piece devoted to defending material inequality. They don’t go together.

{ 26 comments }

1

Barry 08.18.04 at 9:14 pm

“Kerry’s war medals? Please. “

Interesting comment by Will.
In the end, the guiding principle
should simply be:

“life’s too short to read TCS”.

2

theCoach 08.18.04 at 9:31 pm

Will seems to be arguing a different point than the desert point.

3

Russell Arben Fox 08.18.04 at 9:42 pm

Well put Harry. Like many libertarians, Will seems to be operating within a worldview that posits all goods and powers as fundamentally understood in terms of their possession; that is, everything begins and ends as a holding. Therefore, if egalitarians argue that this (possibly unequal) holding cannot be legitimately defended on the basis of desert, then clearly that other holding or action over there must not be deserved either. In fact, no holding is justified, ever, which means no act of coercion, no collective demand, no redistribution, no expression of will, can ever be legitimate.

Thankfully, there are more arguments for equality than those which founder upon claims over who deserves to posses what. There is dignity, recognition, and a host of other values. Sure, Edwards doesn’t deserve his blinding grin, and he doesn’t deserve to be able to affect political change on the basis of his blinding grin. But I don’t believe he or anyone else actually thinks such would be the case, should he be elected.

4

Cranky Observer 08.18.04 at 10:28 pm

> Kennedys don’t deserve to be
> Kennedys. Kerry’s war medals?
> Please.

Help me understand the equivalence. JFK and Ted were born Kennedys, agreed.

Kerry volunteered for a 2nd tour in Vietnam, volunteered for close combat, and voluntarily jumped off his boat to rescue a man when protocol would have allowed him to haul a$$ out of there instead.

Why does Kerry not “deserve” the fruits of that action?

Cranky

5

Brett Bellmore 08.18.04 at 10:49 pm

“Why does Kerry not “deserve” the fruits of that action?”

‘Cause people who’ve gotten their money by just as much earning it, supposedly don’t?

Russel, so long as there are people around, holding, ownership, is inevitable. Some person or group of people are going to have control over things. Deny it to individuals, and you just give it to whoever gets to act against those individuals’ wills.

In other words, you wouldn’t abolish ownership, you’d give the government a monopoly on ownership of everything.

6

bob mcmanus 08.18.04 at 10:50 pm

“Reagan didn’t deserve movie-star name recognition.” Hey I give Ron a whole of credit for thriving in the studio system. There was a lot of competition, and the skills Reagan developed may not have been DeNiro’s skills, but were laudatory in their own right.

I can only understand this by assuming that Wilkinson is taking a temporary position of determinism for the sake of the argument.

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.18.04 at 10:51 pm

“I don’t believe that in redistributing the wealth that Bill Gates holds we would be ‘taking and disposing of’ his stuff. It is, simply, not his, because he has no right to it, and other people do.”

It is the ‘and other people do’ that is the interesting and rarely defended claim.

8

BigMacAttack 08.18.04 at 11:05 pm

The original application of the criticism was selective. It applies equally as well to socialists as it does to libertarians.

Perhaps he chooses to apply the criticism to political equality not because he is such an ardent supporter but because he knows most people are supporters of political equality. People will reject the argument because they favor political equality and then the argument is worthless.

Any incongruity is irrelavent.

The deserve criticism of private ownership got us nowhere. It applies to everything and so it is applicable to nothing. What is missing is the positive justification for re-distribution(and politcal equality).

9

abb1 08.18.04 at 11:09 pm

The problem with these anarcho-capitalist types is that, for some some reason, when they say “coercive power” they actually mean “power to push people around” quite literally; they are only talking about physcal coersion.

A situation when, for example, someone who is facing starvation “voluntarily” agrees to work for, say, 17c/hr – this situation they don’t see as “pushing people around”: hey, no one forced you to take the 17c/hr job, you wanted it – you got it. But it is coercion, plain and simple. And, it seems, the only way to balance this coercion is to coerce the coercer, which is what anarcho-capitalist types don’t like. But they never offer any alternative solutions.

10

bob mcmanus 08.18.04 at 11:12 pm

“In other words, you wouldn’t abolish ownership, you’d give the government a monopoly on ownership of everything.”

This is a problem I have with libertarians. Yes, Brett, it does.
The most physically powerful subset of a group or a society has practical ownership over everything. The actual world is that of Hobbes or Thucydides, or would be without a set of social technologies developed to increase productivity and comfort.

That the majority or king or premier doesn’t take everything you have, including your family(reference Chalabi) is a privilege of living in America, not a transcendental or natural right.

11

ChrisPer 08.19.04 at 3:08 am

“I don’t believe that in redistributing the wealth that Bill Gates holds we would be ‘taking and disposing of’ his stuff. It is, simply, not his, because he has no right to it, and other people do.”

NOW we see the violence inherent in the system! SO it isn’t his, and he has NO right to it?

Let’s discuss this in terms of the actual $100 that my PC added to his fortune. I paid that to him voluntarily for a licence to use HIS intellectual property (skipping the details regarding shareholdings). His right to it is founded in my contract with him.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 17.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

To deny Bill’s fundamental right to that $100, formerly mine and now his, is to deny our human rights.

Article 7.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 30.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

12

ChrisPer 08.19.04 at 4:07 am

Conclusion:
Luck is a part of the picture of what gives property to one and not others.

But evolution biases luck strongly toward improvement. Behaviour biases luck powerfully, especially in the matter of material and social success. Political skill and social understanding do too.

Luck is not random, but favours certain meritorious and unmeritorious actions. Merit is complex and arguable, but of itself does not convey or entitle either political power or economic power – and why should it? Desert is an abstract “should”, useful for guiding behaviour but not for enforcing on an unwilling world.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practise; but in practise there is.

13

abb1 08.19.04 at 8:10 am

I paid that to him voluntarily for a licence to use HIS intellectual property (skipping the details regarding shareholdings).

But why is it HIS intellectual property? He didn’t create it, which means that he somehow coerced a group of people into creating this intellectual property and giving him the rights to it. Not to mention forcing his competitors out of business by various means.

Not that he’s done anything illegal necessarily, he just used various advantages he had plus some luck. But coercion is, indeed, inherent in the system. What this means is that these’s nothing immoral about taking and redistributing Mr. Gates’ wealth. Whether it makes sense to do it and to what degree is a different question.

14

Tracy 08.19.04 at 9:08 am

abb1 – while I am not an anarchist, there does strike me as a fundamental difference between physically forcing someone to do something, and offering someone facing starvation work for 17c an hour. You can call them both coercion if you like, I don’t care to argue about words, but I think they’re not the same things, and the second is much less morally worrying.

Consider another pair of scenarios:
(1) someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to spend an hour sitting in a comfortable chair drinking a nice cup of tea (people who are allergic to tea, or have bad backs, or etc, please substitute accordingly) is committing a crime. Not as bad a crime as slavery as practised (e.g. sugar-boiling), but a crime nonetheless because they are taking away freedom of action.

2) you are starving, and someone offers you a job, which you have to ‘voluntarily’ accept, as a food reviewer of 3-star restaurants at $100 an hour.

As far as I can tell, by your logic my second scenario is as much a crime as my first (or more, as in my first scenario you’re only coerced for an hour). In both cases people are being coerced. But if so, it makes it impossible for someone to morally rescue people from starving if their rescue in anyway benefits them. You can give someone food no strings barred, but you can’t offer them work that also benefits you, no matter how good the terms are to the starving person. That does not strike me as making any moral sense.

Of course, if there’s only two people in the world, the scenario of 17 c/hr for work is more worrying since the starver can’t make deals with other people, but that doesn’t seem very relevant to a world with 6 billion people on it. And, anyway, in the 2-person scenario, the offerer is going to have sleep sometime so they have a pretty strong incentive to share things more equally.

15

ChrisPer 08.19.04 at 9:49 am

“He didn’t create it, which means that he somehow coerced a group of people into creating this intellectual property and giving him the rights to it. “

Beg to differ. He did create it, by teamwork, leadership, investment and the voluntary employment of people who were paid for their endeavors at the market rate. Their labour was not immoral, and their contract was a lot better compensated than 75 cents per hour!

The world is richer and better today than it was in previous decades because of exactly this entrepreneurship, both business and social. Making things better is what real capitalism does, in concert with governments, redistributive taxation and all the panoply of modern democracies.

Arguments attacking ‘anarcho-capitalist’ stalking horses have nothing to do with reality, though plainly you imagine these ideals are what drive your political opponents.

16

ChrisPer 08.19.04 at 9:50 am

“He didn’t create it, which means that he somehow coerced a group of people into creating this intellectual property and giving him the rights to it. “

Beg to differ. He did create it, by teamwork, leadership, investment and the voluntary employment of people who were paid for their endeavors at the market rate. Their labour was not immoral, and their contract was a lot better compensated than 75 cents per hour!

The world is richer and better today than it was in previous decades because of exactly this entrepreneurship, both business and social. Making things better is what real capitalism does, in concert with governments, redistributive taxation and all the panoply of modern democracies.

Arguments attacking ‘anarcho-capitalist’ stalking horses have nothing to do with reality, though plainly you imagine these ideals are what drive your political opponents.

17

abb1 08.19.04 at 10:25 am

Tracy, I am not saying that hiring someone for 17c/hr is a crime, let alone that it’s more of a crime than holding a gun to someone’s head.

However: I do think you’re right that in general “you can’t offer them work that also benefits you, no matter how good the terms are to the starving person” if you are looking at it from morality perspective (not my favorite angle, but this what the subject of this thread is).

The problem is that exploitation is inherent in capitalism. Exploitation is coercion. So, if we agree that coercion is immoral then capitalism is inherently immoral.

ChrisPer,

He did create it, by teamwork, leadership, investment and the voluntary employment of people who were paid for their endeavors at the market rate. Their labour was not immoral, and their contract was a lot better compensated than 75 cents per hour!

He didn’t create it, he only participated. His employees created it, how much they were paid is an insignificant detail, the important fact is that they needed their jobs, they didn’t just work for the love of it. Which means that they were coerced to produce something while giving most of the benefits of their labor to Gates.

Think about it: if his employees were independently wealthy before they were hired by Gates – would they be working for him? Probably not. Which means that they were, in a sense, forced, taken advantage of. Well, then, what’s wrong with them forcing Gates to give up part of his wealth albeit by different means? Nothing.

The world is richer and better today than it was in previous decades because of exactly this entrepreneurship, both business and social.

Sure, but this is not what we are talking about here.

18

Tracy 08.19.04 at 11:56 am

abb1 – if offering a starving person a job is inherently exploitation, regardless of how good the terms are, then I think that exploitation is not always immoral. You can call it coercion if you like, but then you lose my agreement that coercion is immoral.

And that is why anarchists and others do see a significant difference between phyiscal coercion and offering a starving person a job. I am still at a complete loss as to why you think that helping yourself at the same time as helping a starving person is immoral in the same way as holding a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to do something. You don’t see why others don’t see them as the same, I don’t see how on earth you can see them as the same.

19

abb1 08.19.04 at 1:41 pm

if offering a starving person a job is inherently exploitation, regardless of how good the terms are, then I think that exploitation is not always immoral.

But the terms are always the same, in the sense that you’re always paying less than what I produce is worth. That’s what makes it morally problematic. Exploitation can be egregious or it can be very subtle – doesn’t make any difference for my argument. Stealing 10c or $10 million is still stealing, still morally wrong.

You can call it coercion if you like, but then you lose my agreement that coercion is immoral.

If you’re saying that a little coercion is Okay when the end result is good – I don’t necessarily disagree with that.

But then the same can be said in regards to coercing Mr. Gates into redistributing 90% of his wealth.

20

harry 08.19.04 at 1:57 pm

bq. The world is richer and better today than it was in previous decades because of exactly this entrepreneurship, both business and social.

If you look at Goodin et. al.’s Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism you’ll see that Germany and the Netherlands have just about the same rate of growth in the period 1950-1992 as does the US. With massiviely higher top marginal tax rates and much greater equality of condition. That’s what we’re arguing about here, you realise — how high top martginal tax rates should be and how generously to redistribute the fruits of economic cooperation. Maybe strict equality would inhibit growth, but the US could put up with a great deal more redistribution, wisely designed. That is, assuming that growth is the greatest social priority, which I don’t assume, after some threshold has been met, ut which libertarians argung in this consequentialist vein seem to assume.

21

ChrisPer 08.19.04 at 2:18 pm

False assumptions:
“But the terms are always the same, in the sense that you’re always paying less than what I produce is worth. That’s what makes it morally problematic. Exploitation can be egregious or it can be very subtle – doesn’t make any difference for my argument. Stealing 10c or $10 million is still stealing, still morally wrong.”

Where this fails is that the worker and employer do not value money and labour in the same way. My value of my labour is less than the salary I get, since I view it as to my advantage to feed my family and myself as well as I can. I found someone who thinks my labour may be more valuable than the money they pay for it, and we are both content. When I negotiate a profitable deal for them, they get clear evidence of my value being greater than my salary but there is no chance I would have made that benefit for them without their capital.

The exchange of money for labour makes BOTH PARTIES RICHER! That is the theory but its also the reality.

22

Tracy 08.19.04 at 4:49 pm

Abb1 – the question of when the ends justify the means is yet another one. I agree that if you had to hit someone over the head to stop them launching a nuclear weapon I’d regard that as a morally justified use of physical coercion.

But I still don’t agree with you that offering a job to someone who is starving is coercion, in the way that hitting them over the head is. What you’re saying is that paying someone less than the full value of their labour is coercion. To me, it’s the basis of exchange and thus of co-operative human society and not inherently morally problematic. Yes, there can be situations where a particular offer is morally bad, just as there are situations where physical coercion is morally good, but the basic situation is fine to me.

For example, say I grow apples and exchange some of them with you for bananas (this could be in a capitalist society, in an anarchist cooperative or in an ideal communist society). Now I am not getting the full value of my labour – you’re eating some of my apples. And vice-versa. But, assuming we both like a bit of variety in our food, we’re both better off. I have no moral problem with that. And, incidentally, in a society where everyone must get the full value of their labour, how could mothers be fully compensated for the labour of 9 months pregnancy, and the labour of labour? How could I repay my mother the full value of my life? Especially since I happen to owe it to Alexander Fleming as well (plus the people who researched and made the particular antibiotics I took).

23

abb1 08.19.04 at 5:42 pm

tracy,
good example. As long as you grow apples and exchange them for bananas I don’t see any problem – you are getting the full value of your labor by freely exchanging your products for other products. This is a free market system – but not necessarily a capitalist system.

What’s much more likely to happen under capitalist system is that someone owns the land where you planted your apple trees. He says: “this land in mine. I’ll hire you to grow apples; all apples you produce belong to me and I’ll be giving you 30% of them.”

And this is simply how the system works, for good or for ill, probably a little bit of both.

If you don’t have any land of your own, you have no choice but to take the job and now you’re not getting the full value of your labor, obviously.

Again, I am not saying that this is something awful necessarily, but I am saying that considerable coercion is taking place here. Certainly you’d prefer to grow your apples on your own land and have all 100% of them. But you can’t have land because someone owns all of it and he (indirectly) employs armed people (police) to protect his claim. This is, basically, how he coerces you into giving up 70% of the full value of your labor.

24

pw 08.19.04 at 6:17 pm

So in this 17-cent-an-hour scenario, we’re just assuming that the person is starving as a result of some cosmic michance? It wouldn’t be because someone decided to mine or graze or cash-farm the land that the now-starving person used grow subsistence crops on, and holds a government-issued piece of paper authorizing the eviction of squatters and tenants, or that a local depression resulting from “structural adjustment” deprived the now-starving person of what used to be a remunerative and socially useful job, or that ill-thought-out development projects led to local desertification and famine, now would it? Nope, the starving person just woke up one day with no food or prosepcts for getting any, and the job-offerer has no connections whatsoever to any of the systems that might generate excess starving people and has never derived any benefit from the existence of those systems. Glad we cleared that up.

Now I merely have to ask whether jobs are also offered at 17 cents an hour to non-starving people and whether any of them accept those jobs, and whether your business plan requires the (of course entirely random and unconnected) continuing supply of starving people willing to take the 17-cent jobs in order for you to make an ongoing profit.

25

abb1 08.19.04 at 8:53 pm

Well, I was trying to give a clear illustration. It doesn’t really matter if it’s 17c/hr or $200/hr.

26

Micha Ghertner 08.21.04 at 6:25 pm

Abb1 seems to be operating under the belief that the labor theory of value is the proper metric to use. It’s no surprise, then, that he reaches Marxist conclusions, as that is where the labor theory of value leads.

But, contra Abb1, goods and services have no intrinsic “worth”, so it is incoherent to say that “you’re always paying less than what I produce is worth” in a free market. The value of a good or service is determined solely by the contractual arrangement, which itself is determined by the participant’s subjective preferences. There is no objective standard by which to determine whatever abb1 believes to be “exploitation.”

Further, the difference between the two theoretical situations, which I’m surprised no one mentioned, is that in the case of the gun man, the act makes the victim worse off than he was before (by definition, if the gun man needs to use force to make the victim do something, that act must be something the victim would not be willing to do otherwise). In the case of employing a starving person, the act makes the victim better off, not worse off, then he was before. Equating the two situations is to ignore the difference between unfortunate situations caused by man and unfortunate situations caused by nature. Moral claims can be made against man. Moral claims cannot be made against nature.

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