Will Wilkinson emails me to push a Cato Institute forum on When Inequality Matters . I see that he’s also emailed Glenn Reynolds to promote the same. The paper being discussed is by David Schmidtz. Schmidtz is a serious philosopher whose writings I’ve read with profit and interest in the past. Nevertheless, I have to greet his opening sentence with some skepticism:
Everyone cares about inequality.
I care about inequality. But I suspect that many of the people associated with Cato and many of its backers don’t. And I’m pretty damn sure that Glenn Reynolds doesn’t give a damn about inequality. Since they are part of “everyone” Schmidtz’s initial statement is false.
(Generally, one wonders about the function of Cato seminars like this. Are they there for genuine intellectual engagement? Or do they exist so that Cato fans and backers can reassure themselves about the answer to William Graham Sumner’s famous question?)
As to why inequality matters, I’d say that it matters because (at least in some dimensions of what matters) inequality is unjust. I’d also say that inequality in some dimensions matters instrumentally because of its effects on others: material inequality can undermine political equality. But having given the quick, dirty and underspecified answer to Schmidtz’s general question, I’d like to pick at him on one specific.
He deals fantastically briskly (not as briskly as my last para, but still) with the whole issue of positional goods and the way in which relative disadvantage can translate into absolute disadvantage.
A final thought about equality as liberation. Brian Barry discusses positional goods, where “what matters is not how much you have but how much you have compared to other people.” Capitalism’s critics once scoffed at the cliché suburban goal of “keeping up with the Joneses,” but Barry laments that, “The cost of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ thus rises in line with the standard of material prosperity.” He says, “Social mobility has thus become a zero-sum game; working class children can rise only if an equal number of middle-class children fall.” But this cannot matter, for it follows tautologically from the fact that income shares necessarily add up to 100%. Barry says “has become” as if he were discussing an empirical development. Not so. What Barry is lamenting is a property of arithmetic rather than of a faulty political system….
In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race’s purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society’s purpose. We form societies with the Joneses so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.
Schmidtz’s earlier paragraph certainly needs his later one. But even with its complement, it really won’t do. Some positional goods are the result of natural scarcity but many of them are not. Whether there are many positions in a social hierarchy, or few, and, crucially, what the rewards associated with such positions are, is not “a property of arithmetic”. Schmidtz suggest that doing well enough is what should matter, rather than doing as well as the Joneses. Sometimes I feel sympathetic to thoughts like that. Doing well enough is what matters to me rather than doing as well as David Schmidtz, to whom I wish prosperity and happiness. But taken together his two paragraphs suggest that he feels no qualms that the real ex ante chances of some children at achieving the nth position in society are much less than the real ex ante chances of others, through no fault of their own. That nth position is likely to be (contingently) associated with reward, with the possibility of comparatively pleasant and stimulating labour, with social prestige and with longer life expectancy and lower risk of disease. And, of course, much of that shortfall in opportunity to compete for that position is systematically correlated with a child’s class membership or racial background. And that inequality matters, and it matters because it is unjust.