Against Schmidtz — for equality

by Chris Bertram on March 10, 2006

[This post is co-written by Harry and Chris and is an extended follow up to Chris’s initial response to David Schmidtz’s Cato Unbound piece When Equality Matters .]

We live in a highly unequal world and in strikingly unequal societies. The income discrepancies between the global poor and those in wealthy societies are enormous, with around one quarter of the world’s population living on less than $1 US per day, and many suffering from acute malnourishment, disease and premature death.[1] (For some further details see articles by Thomas Pogge here and here .) But even within the very wealthiest societies great wealth coexists with severe poverty. Moreover, this is not simply an inequality in outcomes. Whilst the United States, for example, likes to imagine itself as a land of opportunity, social mobility is extremely low and in recent years the benefits of economic growth have been ever more concentrated in the very richest sectors of the population. According to one study, only 1.3 per cent of children born to parents in the bottom 10 per cent of income earners end up in the top 10 per cent. By contrast, almost a quarter of children born into the top 10 per cent stay there, and almost half stay in the top 20 per cent. Children born into the richest tenth of households are 18 times more likely than children born into the poorest tenth to end up in the top tenth. (Further see the Economist and Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis .)

David Schmidtz’s recent piece for Cato Unbound, When Inequality Matters is an artful and unnerving attempt to make use of some recent work within egalitarian political philosophy to argue against what we what we think of as the core of egalitarianism: the demands for greater equality of condition and opportunity. We are not convinced. In our view Schmidtz’s case neglects the impact that relative inequalities have on absolute levels of flourishing and depends at crucial points on dubious analogies and on muddying important distinctions. But it would be churlish not to acknowledge that he gets some things right. For instance, he is correct to emphasize that we must identify the dimensions in which equality matters, for the basic reason that making people equal on one dimension will often have the simple effect of making them unequal on another. Equalizing incomes, for example, would leave people unequal in well-being, because different people have different capacities to convert their income into well-being.

After a promising start, though, Schmidtz’s arguments go quickly downhill. An example is his talk of people’s worth, which is rather confusing and seems to run together two different ideas. The first of these is that of the fundamental equal moral worth of persons, an idea to which liberals are undoubtedly committed by their rejection of notions of natural aristocracy and hierarchy. The second is that of the value that people realize in their lives and through their actions and choices. It is better to keep these ideas distinct. Fundamental equality plays a vital role undergirding all modern political theories. The second idea of value plays very little role in plausible defenses of free markets, actual capitalist institutions, or egalitarian redistribution. It is tempting to want to retain some sort of reference to the value people achieve in their lives if you want desert to play a strong role in a theory of justice. But, as Hayek pointed out, outcomes of market processes are orthogonal to real moral merit. We are skeptical about whether the pattern of rewards that characterizes modern capitalist societies bears more than a distant and incidental relation to any distribution of worth or worthiness (though no doubt the successful like to tell themselves otherwise, for familiar psychological reasons). It is hard to believe, for example, that the class of people netting over $10 million per annum in the US today are much more worthy in moral terms than the class of people netting $50,000 a year, still less that they are 200 times more worthy. According to Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution increased by only about 1 percent per year between 1972 and 2001 whilst over the same period that at the 99th percentile rose by 87 per cent and at the 99.99th by 497 percent. [3] No-one could seriously maintain that such changed tracked the relative moral worth of these groups over the period concerned. Similarly, while egalitarians seek redistribution which influences the pattern of opportunities to achieve worthwhile and valuable lives, they do not typically think that all will do equally well with those opportunities.

Schmidtz makes some polemical use of recent critiques of redistributivist egalitarian liberalism by Elizabeth Anderson and Iris Marion Young. Anderson, as Schmidtz notes, is concerned that recent trends in egalitarian liberal thought, and notably so-called “luck egalitarianism” have tended to foster a demeaning and condescending pity towards the poor. We admire Anderson’s endeavour to sketch a vision of a just society which focuses on the quality of relations among political equals rather that simply on their distributive share and agree that compromises among important values may be needed to secure such a society.

We are skeptical, though, that even in such a society the thought that it is bad that some people do badly through no fault of their own and have a claim to the assistance of others would have no place. The claim that luck egalitarianism fosters certain attitudes “in practice” is, in any case, a difficult one to evaluate. If existing schemes of redistribution (including health care and education systems) do foster condescending attitudes then that is undoubtedly a reason to change the way they operate. Few, if any, such actual schemes are, however, attempts to implement a luck egalitarian ideal. Again, we would simply dispute the idea that the mere thought that persons should not suffer through ill-fortune is demeaning or condescending to those who are its victims.

At its foundation Schmidtz’s agreement with Anderson appears to be the correct thought that society is not a “race” but, in Rawls’s phrase, a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage”. Most egalitarians agree (although most also think that something is owed as a matter of justice to those who are unable to contribute, perhaps because they are severely impaired, or because the contingent institutions do not have a place for their talents). But within this cooperative venture for mutual advantage there are many different kinds of advantage to be found, and the competition for some of those advantages is, indeed, structured like a race. In the contemporary US the occupational structure is such that, on the whole, income, social status, autonomy, intrinsic interestingness, political influence, and even health insurance are packaged together. The pursuit of any one of these is connected to the pursuit of the others. Furthermore, certain attributes give one a tremendous leg up in this “race”. Certain talents, certain personal traits, and certain parental traits play an enormous role in influencing who will do better in these competitions.

Much work has been done, some of it controversial, that suggests that low relative position is associated with low absolute levels of well-being. Schmidtz bombards us with statistics to show that the poorest in the United States have experienced real improvements in their life-expectancy and health outcomes over the past century. Such improvements are welcome, but Schmidtz’s use of these figures smacks of parochialism and complacency. Amartya Sen is just one writer who points to the fact that the life expectancy of poor black Americans (especially men) lags behind that of people in other societies that are more egalitarian at lower absolute levels of wealth and income. Michael Marmot suggests systematic correlations between inequality and health outcomes that depend not of weath and income as such, but on relative position.

Schmidtz concedes this race-like feature of social institutions when he follows up the comment that society is not a race that measures relative performance by writing of games and winners and losers and that “the key to long-run welfare never has been and never will be a matter of making sure the game’s best players lose.” If society is enough like a game to sustain Schmidtz’s analogy then we should probably insist on the being fair starting positions!

Schmidtz is keen to emphasise the instrumental benefits to all of competition and the division of labour. We have two points to make here. First, if efficiency considerations are as important as Schmidtz maintains then it cannot make sense artificially to exclude from the talent pool many individuals who might have developed their talent to the benefit of all, if only they had the chance to do so. A society in which the rich but stupid can get to Yale and end up in high and lucrative positions in commerce or government but where the natively smart but poor are deprived of the resources necessary to develop their talent is not one that effectively matches talent to social welfare.

Second, the leap straight from the benefits of the division of labour to the justification of income inequality is too quick. Market signals are no doubt essential to the efficient allocation of resources, including labour. But the allocative function of markets and their distributive effects are logically distinct, and market societies differ widely in their levels of income inequality. Where such inequalities are necessary to sustain the well being of all (and especially of those with the worst prospects) then we would follow Schmidtz in endorsing them as a matter of practical policy. But these are nevertheless inequalities that we regret and would want to reduce if we could find ways of doing so that were not counterproductive.

More importantly for practical purposes, we disagree with Schmidtz about the baseline against which inequalities must be justified. He seems to think that someone on the low end of an inequality has no complaint as long as the prevailing arrangements leave him better of than he would have been absent social cooperation. This may, ultimately, explain a great deal of our disagreement. But, with Rawls, we set the bar higher. Even if social cooperation makes someone much better off than he would be absent cooperation, he might have a complaint if he is much worse off than anyone would be under some alternative institutional arrangement. This is not the place to defend this disagreement in full. But consider for a moment the high earner who is faced with the observation that under a different scheme he would still be a relatively high earner, though absolutely a much less high earner, and is then asked what justifies the current arrangements. He needs to be able to say something like “because under these arrangements, everybody (or everybody who is worthy, or responsible, or something like that) does better than under the alternative arrangement in which I do worse.” If he cannot, and falls back on his own self interest, he is not offering a justification which has any force for anyone else. He is, then, in a very weak position to lecture egalitarians about the contempt they supposedly express toward the disadvantaged when they demand redistribution in their favour.

In his final section, Schmidtz addresses the question of redistribution and says that the scope of legitimate redistribution is limited by prior considerations of right and entitlement. We would not dispute this at a certain level of generality, but Schmidtz’s presentation—complete with homely examples of lost wallets etc—is apt to mislead. The “lost wallet” example eviscerates the distinction between what we should do within the rules of the existing game (or institutions of social cooperation) and how we should set up the rules themselves. It is true that much of the wealth the people have acquired under the existing rules of the game, is wealth that they have thereby gained a legitimate expectation to. As Schmidtz says “we do not start from scratch”. If we are going to approach matters in such a spirit of historical realism it would at least be seemly to acknowledge that part of the the historical explanation for the patterns of wealth and deprivation that exist within and between nations includes monstrous acts of injustice by any lights. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide are part of the picture as well as the worthy accumulation of property by diligent individuals according to existing rules. Most successful white American men in their sixties today owe some of their success and not a little of the wealth to the fact that uncontroversially unjust discrimination and blacks gave them an unjust advantage in the competition for places at elite colleges, entry level positions in their professions, and commercial contracts.

The rules, moreoever, are not simply a given. They are human artefacts that we can tweak and adjust so as to achieve more or less egalitarian outcomes. In this light the Nozickian contrast between historical entitlement and patterned conceptions of justice that Schmidtz relies upon is highly misleading. All such theories, including Nozick’s include both patterned and historical entitlement elements. Nozick’s patterning comes in his equal assignment of rights of self-ownership, Rawls’s ideas of the basic structure and pure procedural justice provide grounds for claims of historical entitlement. The thought that egalitarians must be purely outcome-oriented and their opponents purely historical is seriously muddled.

We agree with Schmidtz that in principle a considerable amount of material inequality and inequality of opportunity can be justified, because we believe that other values (like, for example, the value of family life) are so important as to prohibit the only ways of redistributing income wealth and opportunities effectively. We also believe that inequality is justified when it benefits those who have the worst prospects. But these considerations go very little way to justifying the inequalities that prevail in contemporary America or Britain (our own home countries). There is no comfort for those who would like to think that their own privileged position is beyond reproach from the perspective of justice.

fn.1 See Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press 2002.

fn.2 See Harry Brighouse, “Birth of Educational Equality in the US”, Times Educational Supplement, 20 May 2005.

fn.3 Cited by Paul Krugman, “Graduates Versus Oligarchs”, NY Times, 27 February 2006.

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{ 84 comments }

1

Cryptic Ned 03.10.06 at 11:11 am

By contrast, almost a quarter of children born into the top 10 per cent stay there, and almost half stay in the top 20 per cent.

When you make a point like this, you should make it clear that you’re talking about INCOME. When I first read this, I thought “Only 25% of the richest ten percent stay in the richest ten percent? That’s an amazingly high level of social mobility, isn’t it?” But this is talking about income. Obviously almost everyone in the richest ten percent, with respect to WEALTH, stays there. It may seem like this is the way it should be, but it means that others don’t move up.

2

paul 03.10.06 at 11:29 am

It is hard to believe, for example, that the class of people netting over $10 million per annum in the US today are much more worthy in moral terms than the class of people netting $50,000 a year, still less that they are 200 times more worthy.

This pattern of returns likely has to do with the declining marginal utility of money and the increasing marginal disutility of moral worth. You have to increase returns more rapidly than moral worth to satisfy the appropriate marginal conditions as you progress up the scale of moral worth.

3

abb1 03.10.06 at 11:29 am

I have to agree with one of your opponents who argued that redestribution is condescending. It certainly is. It’s also ineffective and very difficult to manage and enforce. Once I get my anual $50 million – try to take 40 of them away – I fight you tooth and nail, I’ll spend all of it to fight you. You libs will always lose.

Thievery needs to be stopped right at the source, right there at the workplace, by the labor force.

4

harry b 03.10.06 at 11:39 am

I (basically) agree with you, abb1, so the term “redistribution” is a bit misleading in this context. We mean by “egalitarian redistribution” something like “whatever reforms of social arrangements are necessary reliably to achieve egalitarian outcomes” (and, just to reiterate what’s in the post, we believe there are principled limits on the extent to which that is permissible). There’s no short phrase to express that, so in our restricted world of political philosophers we all use “redistribution” as a short hand. I think we all mean the same thing by it, but I’ve never checked!

5

Elias 03.10.06 at 11:53 am

[A]lmost a quarter of children born into the top 10 per cent stay there

Lol, in other words, more than three-fourths of children born into the top 10 percent end up in a lower decile. Which side of the debate are you guys arguing?

6

Functional 03.10.06 at 11:58 am

Amartya Sen is just one writer who points to the fact that the life expectancy of poor black Americans (especially men) lags behind that of people in other societies that are more egalitarian at lower absolute levels of wealth and income.

Can someone flesh this out? I’m sure that Sen has useful things to say, but as described, this theory sounds like nonsense. I.e., one imagines a black man who lives in America and who has a 50% chance of seeing a heart surgeon, and comparing him with a Nigerian who has a 5% chance of seeing a heart surgeon. The theory is that American black man is worse off than the Nigerian, because there are other rich Americans who have a 100% chance of seeing the heart surgeon? Huh?

My gut reaction is that this can’t possibly be true. There simply must be some other factor that characterizes more “equal” societies — whether diet, exercise, maybe genetic factors — that isn’t being included in the analysis.

Anyway, if someone could elaborate on how this theory could even conceivably be true, please enlighten me.

7

djw 03.10.06 at 12:10 pm

Elias’ complaint highlights cryptic ned’s point that the focus on incomes severely underestimates the actual degree of inequality. I just finished teaching Thomas Shapiro’s The Hidden Costs of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality and I strongly recommend it. Several students made the connection between the financing of their college education based on home equity that can be traced back to post war racist FHA housing policy, a major factor in the racial dimension of the wealth gap, which is orders of magnitude worse than the income gap.

8

Chris Bertram 03.10.06 at 12:10 pm

Functional: see

http://crookedtimber.org/2003/12/12/sens-development-as-freedom/

for earlier discussion of the Sen point.

9

djw 03.10.06 at 12:11 pm

Not to complain, though, thanks for an excellent post. I find myself taken in by Schmidtz when I should know better sometimes.

10

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 12:22 pm

“Moreover, this is not simply an inequality in outcomes. Whilst the United States, for example, likes to imagine itself as a land of opportunity, social mobility is extremely low and in recent years the benefits of economic growth have been ever more concentrated in the very richest sectors of the population. According to one study, only 1.3 per cent of children born to parents in the bottom 10 per cent of income earners end up in the top 10 per cent. By contrast, almost a quarter of children born into the top 10 per cent stay there, and almost half stay in the top 20 per cent. Children born into the richest tenth of households are 18 times more likely than children born into the poorest tenth to end up in the top tenth. “

If you are worried about “equality” isn’t the best measure how many people make it to the middle? If you look at the Bowles and Gintis report that you cite, the graph shows a vast majority of the people tending toward the middle–either by starting there by birth or ending up there after moving down from a higher level or up from a lower one. The 3-dimensional graph shows 4 tails. Most extreme tails are highest to lowest and lowest to highest (.1% of total population goes from low to high, .2% go from high to low). Moderately extreme tails are highest to highest and lowest to lowest (3.1% of total population stuck in lowest decile, 2.3% of total population stuck in highest decile). The graph clearly shows a very strong tendency toward the middle for an enormous portion of the population. Even if you ignore absolute gains (which barring a throwaway paragraph you do) the vast tendency is toward the middle. That is what I expect. That is would you claim to want. Only by focusing on the extreme tails do you get an even partially bad picture. By trying to paint that picture as broadly unequal you play the exact same trick that people who don’t understand statistics do when they say things like “the top level mathematicians are mostly men so women on average aren’t very good at math when compared to men”. The data doesn’t support that. For the vast majority of the population, women are perfectly fine at math. Men are overrepresented on both tails of intelligence, but for the enormous majority of the population you couldn’t reliably discriminate between intelligence of men and women based on their sex (men are overrepresented in the genius and idiot categories). By focusing on the tails (the 3.1% ‘stuck’ in the lowest decile and the 2.3% ‘stuck’ in the highest you are blatantly disregarding the big picture which is that the tendency is toward the middle. The vast majority of data points on that graph are people in the middle sticking pretty close to the middle or people on the extremes tending toward the middle.

“But consider for a moment the high earner who is faced with the observation that under a different scheme he would still be a relatively high earner, though absolutely a much less high earner, and is then asked what justifies the current arrangements. He needs to be able to say something like “because under these arrangements, everybody (or everybody who is worthy, or responsible, or something like that) does better than under the alternative arrangement in which I do worse.””

That is exactly the statement we tend to make. Under less competitive situations we are going to have less growth. Reduce overall growth by only 1% per year and under just about any reachable leveling scheme you might propose (say turning all Western countries into Sweden) the middle (where the vast majority of the people reside) is doing noticeably worse off than under the non-leveling scheme after about one generation. Ah you might say, but Sweden has fine growth. True, so long as it trade with bigger countries. Not so much if it is say France and definitely not so much if it were a world economic driver like the US.

Are we at the very most optimal point for balancing equality and efficiency? Probably not. But you seem to want to analyze something which ought to be balanced across both factors as if material equality ought to be the largest factor. Even under the current system it is observable that the absolute wealth of the bottom quintile and decile grows (especially when you control for availability of once luxury items or quality of items like refrigerators, microwaves and cars–low end Hondas now are MUCH better than mid-range cars available to Americans in the 1970s).

The system works for a vast majority of people. Growth in quality of items and access to things which would recently been considered luxury items continues. Even in the troublsome areas like health care things improve dramatically for the bottom rungs–only an idiot would trade low-income Medicaid in 2006 for top-notch medical insurance in 1970. On an absolute scale things are doing well. On a relative scale, the vast majority tends toward the middle. So over the two dimensions that have to be optimized for, we really are doing fairly well.

Can we do more to help people who could do well if they hadn’t started in the lowest decile? Absolutely. Sign me up. But that isn’t the revamping that you seem to be hinting at. The system as a whole is doing well. If you want to ameliorate some of the pain that can be expressed at the bottom of the system, I’m all for it. If you want to revamp the system, you are going to have to do a lot of work to show that the absolute growth won’t be damaged.

11

mpowell 03.10.06 at 12:35 pm

Why the focus on very top income earners, ie the 99th percentile and the 99.99th percentile? Does it really matter to this discussion? Most of those people probably have either exceptional talents or the right connections to get into business or finance and work their way to the top. So maybe the CEO makes way too much money. Granted. I think there is a question of how to find the right balance between restraining their power and too much costly government intereference. But in the end, all you are trying to do is set up a system that maximizes shareholder returns. I am concerned about setting the right levels for minimum wages and the balance between labor and management or how to get inner city kids the best educational opportunites, but these seem like separate issues to me. Could you explain why you think the inequality at the very top indicates a problem in those other areas?

12

Functional 03.10.06 at 12:37 pm

Thanks, Chris. But that thread just confirms my impression that Sen’s argument is bogus. The bit that you quoted merely pointed to the fact that men in China and Kerala have a longer average lifespan than American blacks.
As several commenters pointed out — with no plausible rebuttal — this sort of comparison is unsupportable.

There are many obvious differences between China and the United States other than levels of inequality — such as diet and exercise (esp. the differing levels caused by the fact that Americans drive so much). The notion that you can simply compare lifespans and then declare that material inequality is the cause (ignoring all other factors and without even mentioning the levels of inequality in China and Kerala!) is unprofessional and unscholarly.

Does Sen say anything else? Does he add any details that would give this argument any credibility?

13

Functional 03.10.06 at 12:48 pm

That said, it is indeed striking that American blacks have shorter lifespans than various Third-World countries. But to leap to the conclusion that material inequality accounts for the difference is staggering. Not just diet and exercise are involved here, but also tobacco use, drug use, alcohol — all factors that (to say the least) aren’t obviously related to the levels of material inequality.

If your hope is to prove that material equality is more important than absolute levels of income — such that it would be better to live in a society with no doctors than in a society where everyone visited doctors of varying levels of skill — you’re going to have to do better than this.

14

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 12:50 pm

“We mean by “egalitarian redistribution” something like “whatever reforms of social arrangements are necessary reliably to achieve egalitarian outcomes” (and, just to reiterate what’s in the post, we believe there are principled limits on the extent to which that is permissible).”

I presume by your parenthetical that you aren’t talking about a true leveling of incomes–which is to say you accept the idea that some people will do more useful things for the overall economic health of a nation and thus get paid more. If that is so, how do you propose to determine the worth of “do more useful things” compared to “do less useful things”? You don’t seem to like market outcomes. What do you propse? A national commission on the worth of jobs? Command economy here we come. Shall we presume that the national commission will quickly devalue jobs that become technologically obsolete (the buggy manufacturer problem) or do you think it is more likely that a vast jobs bureaucracy will fall behind technological changes?

If you want talented people in the lowest decile to have more opportunity for education I’m with you. But material equality as a goal INDEPENDENT of its effect on absolute wealth creation seems like a poor understanding of the issue. Equality as a part of a max-min equation makes sense to me. The discussion above seems to assume robust economic growth as if it were independent of competition. Competition with equal outcomes does not drive economic efficiency.

I guess you have to tell me what you mean by “egalitarian outcomes”. Do you mean that someone who could work his whole life but chooses not to ought to have a comfortable life? I suspect not, but it isn’t clear what you would do about it. Is it that you mean that someone who mentally cannot work ought to have an upper middle class life style? I suspect not, but it isn’t clear what you want. Are we only talking about egalitarian outcomes for people who can work with a low-level comfortable existance for those who cannot? Are we talking about market outcomes for people who can work with a low-level comfortable existance for those who cannot?

15

francis 03.10.06 at 12:54 pm

SH sez: “Under less competitive situations we are going to have less growth.” and “The system as a whole is doing well.”

I think those claims need some evidentiary support. For example, if the 90% who are seeing virtually no wage growth in 35 YEARS actually could capture more of the wealth being generated by society as a whole, the society as a whole might grow faster.

Also, the notion that the system is doing well probably needs closer analysis, because there are value judgments in the statement “doing well” that many people might disagree with.

Is a society doing well when millions of people don’t have health insurance?

Is a society doing well when 10% of the population has captured all the increases in worker productivity over the last 35 years?

Is a society doing well when millions of people are seeing that the only possible employment is relatively low-wage non-transferable service sector work?

Is a society doing well when millions of people feel insecure about their future and trapped at work?

Frankly, it appears to me that we have successfully created a very feudal society, where 90% work for 10%. Yes, the 10% changes over time. Yes, the standard of living for the 90% is rising over time as new inventions become available and productivity continues to rise.

However, I remain unpersuaded that the aggregate level of stress in our society is justified by the growth in total wealth we create, especially given the allocation of that total wealth.

Or, more simply, I don’t believe that life needs to be so hard for so many people.

16

Slocum 03.10.06 at 12:54 pm

If we are going to approach matters in such a spirit of historical realism it would at least be seemly to acknowledge that part of the the historical explanation for the patterns of wealth and deprivation that exist within and between nations includes monstrous acts of injustice by any lights. Slavery, colonialism, imperialism, genocide are part of the picture as well as the worthy accumulation of property by diligent individuals according to existing rules.

This seems to be the fundamental disagreement. Is it true that ‘we’ are rich because ‘they’ are poor (and that if we were less rich, they’d be less poor)? Or is it the case that because we are rich, they are not nearly as badly off as they would have been? Is our wealth a result of past exploitation (a form of theft)? Or are the fruits of our inventiveness and industry (which cannot help but benefit poorer people) a form of repayment of past injustices? Should we feel proud of our wealth or ashamed of it?

Consider some of the wealth accumulated by the small fraction of the ultra-rich. Have the fabulous fortunes accumulated by Larry Page and Sergei Brin come at the expense of ordinary Americans (and ordinary Chinese and Indians and Africans)? Did those men grab obscenely huge shares of ‘the pie’? Or did they figure out how to make a wonderful (and valuable) new kind of pie that would not have existed without their efforts?

The instant Google fortunes surely contributed to the increase in wealth of the 99th percentile. Did Google (and the that fortune that resulted) make ordinary people around the world worse off (if only because their relative position in the zero-sum status game was hurt)?

But isn’t that an absurd question–one that is hard to ask it with a straight face? Of course, Google made millions billions better off, and who really gives a damn how big Sergei Brin’s mansion is (assuming he has owns one)?

Now one might argue that Google might have been founded in a country with stronger redistributive rules so that people there would have realized the benefits of Google and gotten a bigger cut of the money generated as well. But Google wasn’t founded in such a country (nor was Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Oracle). Just a coincidence?

17

Jim Harrison 03.10.06 at 1:18 pm

Adding a constraint to a linear programming problem typically results in a lower maximum solution. Leveling incomes or wealth for ideological reasons does constrain growth. What nobody seems to notice however, is that the ideological insistance on high levels of inequality can also constrain performance. Just as the social democrat types are willing to lose some economic dynamism in order to maintain or expand equality, the defenders of privilege would rather see the economy as a whole suffer than support or tolerate commonsense policies that limit the prorogatives of themselves or their patrons.

If this argument seems artificial, consider the possibility we’re entering an era of shortages in which the positive sum game of economic growth is replaced with a negative sum game of global musical chairs. In a relatively egalitarian society faced with limits to growth, sacrifices can be shared. In a strongly inegalitarian society, the lower rungs will simply be kept under control by police power so that their betters can preserve the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

18

Brendan. 03.10.06 at 1:19 pm

‘Just a coincidence?’

Yes. here’s a list of swedish companies, including Ericsson, Volvo and Electrolux. Danish companies include B and O and Carlsberg, sweden gave us Ikea (a mixed blessing?), Nokia gave us Finland (or vice versa) and so on. And yet all these countries are far more egalitarian than the US.

In any case, the question isn’t abstract and about values etc. any more: it’s more concrete than that. The question is: do more egalitarian systems lead to longer lives (on average).

To help think about this: here’s the wikipedia on Kerala, on Cuba (especially the section on public health)…and you might want to look at the life expectancies of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway (best place to live in the world according to the UN for four years now). etc. etc. etc.

Incidentally there is now a HUGE amount of data that inegalitarian societies are bad for health.

There’s ‘The Health of Nations: Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health
by Ichiro Kawachi’ The Health of Nations by Sagan, the Marmot book etc. etc. etc.

19

Brendan. 03.10.06 at 1:25 pm

Another relevant article, to the ‘social justice, lack of stress, good living conditions, egalitarian societies, equals happiness, equals health etc.’ argument.

http://people.vanderbilt.edu/~isaac.prilleltensky/pospsy.htm

20

Functional 03.10.06 at 1:27 pm

Also, Chris, one of your comments in that other thread stated, in part:

What Sen is pointing to is, first and foremost, a shocking set of facts. Those facts ought to remain shocking whatever you think the best explanation for them is. . . . Here we have a group, the descendants of slaves, whose culture and family structure was shattered by the experience of enslavement and by a subsequent legacy of oppression and systematic discrimination, whose members until recent living memory were subject to systematic violence and terroristic murder . . . .

The factors that you point to are all the more reason NOT to think that the American black experience represents any kind of generalizable fact about material inequality (in and of itself).

21

jet 03.10.06 at 1:47 pm

Aren’t Sebastian and Slocum making straight up Rawls-ian arguments? That inequality is a good thing as long as it benefits the least of the society?

22

Steve 03.10.06 at 1:51 pm

“Or, more simply, I don’t believe that life needs to be so hard for so many people.”

I think this sums up the argument (Whether you want to admit it or not). One group sees America as a “feudal” nation in which life is hard for the bottom 90%. The other groups sees this as absolutely absurd. Our country is a giant shopping mall of consumer goods in which the overwhelming majority (90%+) have color televisions, washers and dryers, automobiles, and so on. Ours is a nation where one of the primary health threats to the poor is obesity (and its related health problems like type-2 diabetes, etc): these come from eating TOO MUCH!!!!. An average middle class home today is far better, far more technologically advanced, and loaded with far more stuff than in 1970. An average lower class home is as well. We all know this, yet we can talk about the top 1% taking all income gains over the last 35 years?

Here’s the problem. Really really rich people make more money than they should (debatable, but that is your basic argument). Most people don’t care because most people don’t see those really really rich people, and besides most people have alot of stuff. You can’t convince people to care; they’re too busy living their lives to worry about how big Michael Jackson’s house is.

So what do you so? Out comes the nonsense. America is a feudal society (easily refuted by, uhm, looking around you). The top X% is taking all the gains over the last 35 years (easily refuted by, uhm, opening your eyes and going to the mall, looking at your car, looking at your television, looking at your grocery store, looking at your medicine cabinet, etc etc).

Further, I don’t think many of you have any conception of what it means to be in the top 20%/10% etc of the population. When Chris talks of the mobility of the top 10% (“According to one study, only 1.3 per cent of children born to parents in the bottom 10 per cent of income earners end up in the top 10 per cent. By contrast, almost a quarter of children born into the top 10 per cent stay there, and almost half stay in the top 20 per cent.”), he’s talking as if our rich overlords are ‘fixing’ the system to protect themselves from the oppressed (feudal?) masses.

Quintile Yearly Income Range in 2001
Lowest $0 – $17,916
Second $17,916 – 33,377
Third $33,377 – 53,162
Fourth $53,162 – 84,016
Highest $84,016 and higher
Top 5% $150,002 and higher
(from memory, the top 10% cutoff is around $105,000)

Put this in perspective: an engineer with a stay-at-home spouse can easily be in the top 20%. An engineer with a real estate agent spouse could easily be in the top 10%. A doctor (of any speciality, with or without a working spouse) is almost definition in the top 5%. A married couple who are both mid-level civil servants are almost definitely in the top 5% of income earners in the country!

So is it a crime that 1/4 of engineers’ kids make as much money as their dads? That the married couple who work at the social security office will have kids with a 1/2 chance of making as much as they do?

Get past the rhetoric and think about what you are saying. If you don’t like that Michael Jordan and Bill Gates and the CEO of American Airlines make as much money as they do, well, maybe we’ll agree with you and maybe not. Yeah, $millions for a CEO seems a bit much. But the feudal talk, and the poor poor America talk isn’t working for the simple reason that it is delusional.

Steve

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abb1 03.10.06 at 2:19 pm

…easily refuted by, uhm, opening your eyes and going to the mall, looking at your car, looking at your television, looking at your grocery store, looking at your medicine cabinet, etc etc.

How does looking at your car and medicine cabinet refute something? Is this some kindova buddhist sorta thing?

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Kevin Donoghue 03.10.06 at 2:34 pm

#12: Does Sen say anything else? Does he add any details that would give this argument any credibility?

Chris Bertram’s final comment in the thread on Sen’s Development as Freedom was: “Read the book for yourself – I’m not your research assistant.”

Perhaps that is asking too much; many readers find Sen very good for curing insomnia. It’s worth the effort but, for those who aren’t up to it, this review by Samuel Brittan gives a good general indication of what the book is about.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 2:35 pm

“Is this some kindova buddhist sorta thing?”

No, buddhists don’t really believe in the material world. The argument here would appear to be that if you look at the material things that are available to (attainable for) the lower class now you will notice that they are both better and cheaper than than they were 40 years ago and 30 years ago and 20 years ago and 10 years ago. This is true even in health care.

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abb1 03.10.06 at 2:43 pm

Well, how often do you meet or visit someone from the freakin lower class? I bet you won’t even drive thru where lower class lives, you’ll take a detour. Read a book, read Nickel and Dimed or Selling Ben Cheever or something.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 2:56 pm

“I bet you won’t even drive thru where lower class lives, you’ll take a detour.”

How much would you like to bet? I in fact work where the lower class lives, and for a year in the past decade lived where the lower class lives. I work at a small corporate headquarters which has the manufacturing vats less than 50 feet from my computer. I strongly suspect I have much more contact than you and almost certainly more than the college professors here.

I suspect you know as much about the lower class as you do me….

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 2:56 pm

“Read a book, read Nickel and Dimed or Selling Ben Cheever or something.”

Is that how YOU learned about the lower class? Interesting.

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Javier 03.10.06 at 3:04 pm

Chris and Harry, thank you for writing this post—the response to Schmitdz’s article is developing into the most interesting philosophical debate in the blogosphere that I’ve seen for a long time and this post is an excellent contribution.

Now some comments and quibbles.

1. I’ve posted this before at CT, but I recommend Princeton economist Angus Deaton’s paper on the relationship between income and health. To save people the effort of going through it, here is one of Deaton’s main conclusions:

Without controls, income inequality is positively related to mortality, but the effect is eliminated by adding the other variables [such as race]; indeed, adding individual income is sufficient to eliminate the effect of inequality on mortality.

The data that Deaton presents suggests that income inequality is not in itself associated with higher mortality rates. I think many other alledged negative effects of income inequality turn out to be overblown as well.

2. But on the other hand, the common claim that a large welfare state and income redistribution harm economic growth is false, at least in the aggregate. Peter Lindert’s work is the most definitive analysis that I know of and Lindert finds that the size of a welfare state has no negative effect on growth. This makes it difficult for Schmidtz to argue, as he seems to want to, that more redistribution will lead to a smaller economic pie. Thus, you can argue that a society can ensure greater equality of opportunity and still attain a rapid growth rate.

3. Do you support fair equality of opportunity at the global level or only the domestic one? If you support it at the global level, then I think we need to reconceptualize the entire issue. The United States certainly has higher income inequality than other liberal democracies, but it takes in more low-skilled immigrants per capita than practically any other wealthy society. Thus it is possible that American society does relatively poorly at supplying equality of opportunity for native citizens but does well in implementing global equality of opportunity. I would be interested in knowing where you come down on this issue.

4. My last question is this: how do we know when other values (i.e. family) outweigh equality of opportunity? I think we need a full blown theory of justice in order to properly adjudicate between these values, but as it stands it seems rather intuitionistic and adhoc.

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francis 03.10.06 at 3:05 pm

side A: wow, look at all these anti-depressants that were never available before. We really do live in the best of all possible worlds.

side B: then why do so many people feel that they need them?

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abb1 03.10.06 at 3:18 pm

Is that how YOU learned about the lower class? Interesting.

Well, I was in the lower class once, although long time ago and not for long. But what’s wrong with learning from the books? People researched, spent time actually being there and then wrote books. It’s much more convincing to me than Steve looking at his medical cabinet.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 3:18 pm

Kevin: Chris Bertram’s final comment in the thread on Sen’s Development as Freedom was: “Read the book for yourself – I’m not your research assistant.”

I’m not the one making startling claims here. Mr. Bertram is the one doing that, with the insinuation that Sen demonstrated that material inequality is somehow more harmful to health than absolute levels of income. If all that Mr. Bertram has to go on is the mere fact that American blacks have lower average lifespans than Chinese or Indians, then his argument has almost zero support. So I’m asking Mr. Bertram: Does Sen provide any further evidence?

It simply won’t do to say that I’m required to read Sen’s book for myself, for the sole purpose of disproving Mr. Bertram’s reliance on what looks like an unsupportable argument from Sen. Sen and Bertram have made an affirmative point here, and they have so far shown no basis for it. So they are the ones who are required to produce their evidence.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 3:24 pm

Also, Kevin, the summary that you posted says that Sen’s point was that “the frequently used performance measure of Gross Domestic Product can be misleading even as an index of material welfare. For instance Afro-American males have a lower life expectancy than males in China and parts of India, although their average real income is far higher.”

This seems like a fair point to me: GDP is not the sole measure of well-being, and one should look at other statistical measures as well.

Does Sen himself say anything whatsoever that would support Bertram’s very different inference that the problem for black males in America is that they live in a less egalitarian society than China?

This would imply that: 1) black males in America would live longer if Bill Gates and his ilk found that half their money had disappeared into thin air; or 2) black males would live longer if they had exactly the same patterns of behavior (diet, exercise, drugs, etc.) and the sole difference is that they were transported to China. I don’t find either implication plausible in the least.

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harry b 03.10.06 at 3:30 pm

javier,

thanks for the references. Christopher Jencks is giving a talk in Madison in April that looks, from the title, as if it makes a similar argument to Deaton’s. I’ll read the one and go to the other.

I think that there is a global basic structure, so I guess that commits me to thinking that principles apply to that. For the purposes of this argument we talk about fair equality of opportunity, but I don’t think either of us thinks that principle should get all the weight. So, in answer to your 4) I’ll just say, yes, I agree with what you say completely. My next book (with Adam Swift) will be called Family Values, and will be an attempt to sort out systematically exactly the question you raise in 4). We’ve already done a lot of work on this, but still too much of it is intuitionistic. The only piece we have out so far that is accessible is already a year old, and unpublished (with all the caveats that implies), but you can find it at: http://www.princeton.edu/~uchv/whatsnew/PEPA331.pdf
This is also relevant to SH’s comments at #14.

For time reasons I am restricting myself to commenting on direct discussions of the normative points. Most of you are focussing on institutional/feasibility arguments; in fact I’m surprised how many of the defenders of inequality agree with the substantive normative points we make against Schmidtz; you’re doing it for the skae of argument, no? I’ll make some institutional comments later (but probably much later!)

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abb1 03.10.06 at 4:00 pm

Of course Bill Gates is extreme manifestation of this. But a mid-level manager or software engineer making ten times more than janitor is a huge problem as well. It’s the same thing. It may be the correct market value of their labor in the economy without unionized labor, but it’s far off of what this post calls “worthiness”.

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MQ 03.10.06 at 4:09 pm

As a liberal, I have to say: I think Sebastian, Slocum, etc. do have an important point here, one that liberals ignore at their peril. The system *does* work reasonably well for the majority of people, and living standards *have* gone up at the median over the last few decades, even as real incomes have not. When you ignore this and sputter about America being a feudal society you are contradicting the direct experience of many people. You won’t be taken seriously outside of a small subculture. Now, I do think the minority failed by the system is larger than the vanishingly small 2% that Sebastian mentioned in a thread below, but politics is happening at the median voter level.

With that said, I’m a liberal (by U.S. standards) because I believe the median American isn’t doing nearly as well as they *could* be doing if the wealthy and their ideological fellow travellers didn’t have such a hammerlock on teh public debate. E.g. I don’t think a 38% top marginal income tax rate would make a damn bit of difference to our real growth rate in the dimensions that count, and it would allow us to reduce or eliminate Federal taxes for numerous families lower down the income distribution. I think it’s ridiculous people can easily end up bankrupt, mired in debt, or fighting an endless war with their insurance company just because they get sick. And I also think that the contradictions between middle-class living standards and the interests of the wealthy will be *greatly* intensified as we come under pressure to pay back the mountains of debt the inexcusably wasteful policies of Seb’s friends in the Bush administration have saddled us with.

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harry b 03.10.06 at 4:19 pm

Come on, functional, if someone told me I needed to read Capitalism and Freedom in order to get the argument for a negative income tax (easily available inexpensive book, which, in my opinion just about anyone with more than a passing interest in politics should have read if they consider themselves educated) rather than, themsleves, being willing to devote an hour to explain it to me, I’d think that was fair enough. I don’t think Sen’s book (Development as Freedom) is as good, but its as readily available, and certainly if, like you, I was a right winger interested in getting things right, I’d take the tip and read it. Try chapters 1,2, and 4.

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Brian Wilder 03.10.06 at 4:24 pm

Insurance. Always argue insurance.

Let the distribution of income emerge from a just scheme of social insurance.

Liberals should favor social insurance schemes, which encourage individual autonomy and risk-taking economic decision-making, with positive implications for economic growth, as well as well-being.

Conservatives favor policies of greater risk for the individual, which favor the interests of the very wealthy, and oppose collective action, using government, to provide insurance. Never let conservatives get away with arguing that they do not favor government policies aimed at redistribution of income — they do exactly that, but focus on risk and not cash dollars.

The distribution of income and risk are two aspects of the same thing. Conservatives know this, and exploit it. Liberals focus on statistical distributions at their peril.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 4:31 pm

“With that said, I’m a liberal (by U.S. standards) because I believe the median American isn’t doing nearly as well as they could be doing if the wealthy and their ideological fellow travellers didn’t have such a hammerlock on teh public debate. E.g. I don’t think a 38% top marginal income tax rate would make a damn bit of difference to our real growth rate in the dimensions that count, and it would allow us to reduce or eliminate Federal taxes for numerous families lower down the income distribution.”

This is the kind of discussion that I think could be vastly productive if the goal were merely to make the lives of the middle class and lower class much better. Unfortunately the goal of making everyone more materially ‘equal’ is a very different goal, and seems to be a goal which unfortunately captures many imaginations.

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Tom Hurka 03.10.06 at 4:34 pm

The original post by Chris and Harry is right that Schmidtz runs together two different ideas of worth, but their post makes its own related mistake.

People who believe that desert is relevant to distributive justice DON’T think the relevant desert is moral desert, as if the Nelson Mandelas and Mother Theresas of the world deserve big incomes for their sterling moral characters. Yet that’s what the post’s third paragraph is all about: whether existing inequalities track “real moral merit.” (Rawls makes the same mistake in sec. 38 of A Theory of Justice, making his discussion of desert there entirely beside the point.)

Believers in economic desert think its basis is economic rather than moral, i.e. either or both of economic effort and economic contribution. If I work hard to produce things for other people, and what I produce benefits them, then on this view I deserve income for my efforts and contributions even if I made them for purely selfish and therefore morally dubious reasons, e.g. that I wanted to be richer than other people.

Schmidtz’s piece bounces around between a number of different ideas, and I don’t know whether this one plays any role in it. But you can’t refute theories of economic desert by attributing to them a view about the basis of that desert that they don’t for a minute hold.

(OK. I can’t help adding this. In some of Robert Frank’s books he argues that executive salaries have increased because, before the 1970s or so, CEOs weren’t being paid their marginal product, i.e. weren’t being paid in proportion to what they actually contributed to their organizations. This was because, with hiring into executive positions being done only from within the firm, there wasn’t a true market for CEO talent, as there came to be after a famous CEO hire into RJR Nabisco. If this is right, it allows a desert-based justification of some of the recent changes in income distribution as more accurately rewarding executive contributions (not that there won’t be many other things, including negative ones, to say about those changes).

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roger 03.10.06 at 4:40 pm

The question is really one of finding an equilibrium point between inequality and equality. And that point is going to be defined by what you want the system to do. Interestingly, even those who defend extreme inequality do it by contending that it benefits a majority. There are few people who (in public) will defend it simply because it benefits a privileged minority. I think that is really a more effective knockdown of the rich=moral position than anything else.

The question has to be framed differently given different circumstances, it seems to me — with the question being: is the equilibrium point too much towards the unequal side, or too much towards the equal side. I think it is pretty obvious that it can be too far to the equal side, with disastrous results. But American growth in the postwar years, as well as European growth, shows that more equality is actually a driver of growth. That makes sense if human capital is really the “residual” in growth. It is easy to see that too much inequality would hurt growth. To use a slice of life case from today’s business pages, as the government has reduced the tax burden on dividends, petroleum companies — which have sky-rocketing profits — are actually spending much less of their revenue on R and D and petroleum development. Since we need that R and D — it is power companies that have the networks and money to take alternative or new energies into the next level of development — we have a great case of a policy favoring more extreme inequality resulting in disinvestment in future growth.

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Kevin Donoghue 03.10.06 at 4:55 pm

Functional, in the space of a single sentence you have Chris and Harry making startling claims and insinuating that Sen demonstrated them.

According to my browser, they merely wrote that Schmidtz dwells on favourable trends in the life-expectancy and health of poor Americans, while ignoring the fact that, in societies which are less affluent but more egalitarian, the poor have fared better. Nothing startling there.

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Jason Bridges 03.10.06 at 4:56 pm

Re Sebastian Holsclaw’s comment #10:
If you are worried about “equality” isn’t the best measure how many people make it to the middle?

The answer to this question seems pretty clearly to be no (and the same goes for the significance Sebastian attaches to the fact that many of the data points show “the middle sticking pretty close to the middle”). It depends upon the distance between the middle and the top. All things equal, the larger the discrepancy between incomes (and of course, wealth, as some have noted) of the most well off and the moderately and least well off, the greater the inequality.

A lot of what Sebastian says, and what Steve says in comment #22, appears to assume that the smaller the number of people at each of the two income extremes, the more equal is the society. But the reverse is more nearly (though not quite) the truth. A society in which the great majority of wealth was concentrated in a tiny aristocracy, with almost everyone else having more or less the same meager allotment, is an extremely unequal society. It is no error on the part of standard economic measures of inequality that they would regard it as such.

The data Steve cites shows that 40% of households have an income that is less than 1/5th of that of the top 5%. The distance gets much larger in comparison to the top 1%, and unimaginably larger for still smaller partitions of the most well-off. The distances are even greater when you compare wealth rather than income. By nearly every economic measure, the gap between the worse and better off in the U.S. has increased over the last few decades. Economic growth over the same period has very significantly favored the wealthy. These statistics describe an unequal society trending toward greater inequality.

I suppose you might not be unduly troubled by this if you thought that pretty much everyone was doing just fine, and that inequality does not in and of itself have ill effects. But I don’t think either of these claims are true. I agree the U.S. isn’t remotely a feudal society. But as we all know, both the poor and a significant portion of the middle class face challenges of job instability, debt/no savings, time-crunch, health insurance, etc. These are more salient considerations when contemplating the benefits of redistribution than Steve’s look-at-how-awesome-your-television-is test. And so far as the bad effects of inequality itself go, differential access to political power is a biggie.

Sebastian worries about the dangers to efficiency of changing the “system”. But this worry seems uncompelling given the small size of the percentage of people with a hugely disproportionate percentage of the wealth. A great deal of ‘redistribution’ could be accomplished by more progressive forms of taxation. Does anyone really think that the whole system will collapse if a bit more of the pie is taken from the wealthy?

All of this is more or less independent of what you think of Rawls-style arguments for redistribution.

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Slocum 03.10.06 at 5:13 pm

Well, how often do you meet or visit someone from the freakin lower class? I bet you won’t even drive thru where lower class lives, you’ll take a detour.

For myself, quite often, actually, as I’m closely related to some people from the ‘freakin lower classes’. I have a brother who makes about $10 an hour doing (non-union) factory work. He owns his own home (small ranch in a blue-collar neighborhood), a couple of used cars (including his baby, a 70’s classic). And it almost goes without saying that he has air-conditioning, a nice color TV and other usual gadgets, and takes an occasional cheap flight for a Florida vacation. He’s certainly lower status than my parents were when we were kids in the 60’s and 70’s but his material standards are better in most respects (during much of the time when I was a kids we had only one B&W TV, one car, no clothes dryer, no air-conditioning and, as a family, we never flew on vacation anywhere). That’s not to say everything’s easy — he does struggle with credit card debt from time to time, and does not have great job security. If he had the ambition to go with his abilities and was willing push himself a bit, he could certainly move up to better paying positions, but he prefers his comfort zone.

Sibling number two is mildly disabled (but receives no disability payments) and works at or very near minimum wage. She owns a trailer, has no car (she cannot drive) and walks to work and to shop. Her life is fairly circumscribed, but she is careful with her money and does OK most of the time. Financially she would probably be better off on disability, but psychologically she would definitely not be.

Their parents (and mine)? Plenty of social mobility in their own lives alone. Both college grads. Middle class in the 60’s and 70’s (though lower status than their own parents). Then millionaires (on paper) in the 80’s when the business they bought was going well–but then back struggling to hold onto middle class as the business gradually failed and they nearly went bankrupt. Still working hard a bit beyond normal retirement age. And my wife and I, both with grad degrees, are in the evil top few percent.

I think this is pretty typical — how many American families (if you include uncles, cousins, etc) don’t have something like this kind of variation across family members and over time?

What conclusions do I draw from my ‘freakin lower class’ brother and sister? In her case, any increases in EITC would be good (as would universal healthcare–though I believe she already qualfies for Medicaid), but a substantial increase in the minimum wage could be an absolute disaster (she’s slow and might not be able to generate, say, $8/hr worth of value at any job). Disability might pay more, but without a job and something to do, and the dignity of supporting herself, she’d be in trouble (crazy cat-lady kind of trouble). In my brother’s case, I wouldn’t really support any additional redistribution beyond UHC–he doesn’t pursue the opportunities that are there because he’s generally satisfied with what he has (and who’s to say that’s the wrong decision)? How many people say the NY Times article about Caterpillar:

http://www.newscoast.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060226/ZNYT01/602260867/1019/NEWS03

In the new lower tier, such easily replaceable workers will no longer earn more than $12.50 an hour, or $26,000 a year. They must work their way up toward middle-class jobs, Mr. Owens argues, shedding the “union mind-set” of annual raises for doing the same minimally skilled task year after year.

“I want people to have a higher income,” Mr. Owens said. “But you do that by starting out maybe driving a forklift or working in a warehouse and then you get new skills. You can learn how to paint. You can learn how to assemble. You can become a welder.” Beyond that, he says, talented workers are encouraged to take courses to qualify for promotion to salaried jobs, like supervisor, outside the union.

Exactly right. Does my brother ‘deserve’ a union job that would provide an ever-increasing middle-class income for doing the same semi-skilled job for the next 25 years? No.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 5:18 pm

Kevin:

Functional, in the space of a single sentence you have Chris and Harry making startling claims and insinuating that Sen demonstrated them.

Yes. They make the startling claim that inequality causes lower lifespans compared to countries with less absolute wealth, and then insinuate that Sen’s book is evidence for this point. What’s hard to understand about that?

According to my browser, they merely wrote that Schmidtz dwells on favourable trends in the life-expectancy and health of poor Americans, while ignoring the fact that, in societies which are less affluent but more egalitarian, the poor have fared better.

There are three problems with that: 1) Sen discusses only two societies (not societies in general) that supposedly compare favorably to America in terms of lifespans; 2) The passage quoted from Sen does not discuss the levels of egalitarianism in those two societies; and 3) The Sen passage doesn’t even attempt to suggest (as do Chris and Harry) that egalitarianism plays a causal role here.

When you combine the miscitation of Sen, in support of a point that is completely implausible on its face, the result is very sloppy and unprofessional.

Oh, right, there’s a passage somewhere else in Sen’s work that proves everything. But no one is allowed to mention it or even provide a hint as to what it says. Therefore, it’s my responsibility to go find the book and read it. That’s the only way that I can expect to know if there is a shred of evidence for Chris and Harry’s point.

Right.

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Kevin Donoghue 03.10.06 at 5:22 pm

Functional, try doing a search for the word “causes” and note the comment in which it first appears.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 5:25 pm

OK, you’re right, Kevin: I should have used the word “insinuate” twice. Chris and Harry insinuate (1) that greater egalitarianism causes longer lifespans, and then they insinuate (2) that this is supported by Sen’s work.

Neither proposition is defensible.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 5:28 pm

Now, do you want to keep playing semantic games, or do you have something substantive to say?

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Functional 03.10.06 at 5:32 pm

I was too strong: I said, “Neither proposition is defensible.” I should have said: Both propositions are facially implausible, and neither Chris nor Harry nor anyone else seems to be able to come up with a defense other than hand-waving claims that the evidence exists somewhere else.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 5:43 pm

And preemptively, Kevin: What do you think Chris/Harry were doing in this passage if not stating a causal relationship?:

Schmidtz bombards us with statistics to show that the poorest in the United States have experienced real improvements in their life-expectancy and health outcomes over the past century. Such improvements are welcome, but Schmidtz’s use of these figures smacks of parochialism and complacency. Amartya Sen is just one writer who points to the fact that the life expectancy of poor black Americans (especially men) lags behind that of people in other societies that are more egalitarian at lower absolute levels of wealth and income.

The overwhelming implication of this passage is: Other societies have longer lifespans BECAUSE they are more egalitarian. If Chris/Harry were not intending to suggest a causal relationship, then why mention egalitarianism in the first place?

Do you seriously think that Chris/Harry — in the midst of a piece on the benefits that egalitarianism would bring — were trying to make a point like this?:

Amartya Sen is just one writer who points to the fact that the life expectancy of poor black Americans (especially men) lags behind that of people in other societies at lower absolute levels of wealth and income. This is because the people in those societies eat healthier diets and get more exercise via walking. They happen to be more egalitarian as well, but that has no causal relationship to their better health, and so it’s really not relevant to the whole point of this essay. This whole paragraph is just a side observation about the benefits of diet and exercise.

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Javier 03.10.06 at 5:47 pm

Jason Bridges, I want to respond to a few of your points.

By nearly every economic measure, the gap between the worse and better off in the U.S. has increased over the last few decades.

This is probably false or at least exaggerated. In contrast to income inequality, consumption inequality has barely budged, which in my mind suggests (a) the income of the lower quintiles might be underreported, (b) the “increased use of credit markets to smooth out short term fluctuations in income, which offsets increased long-run inequality” (to quote John Quiggin).

And I’m of the opinion that “real” wages have been increasing steadily for most people despite the official statistics, since the Consumer Price Index overstates inflation by failing to adequately account for quality improvements, in addition to other problems.

But as we all know, both the poor and a significant portion of the middle class face challenges of job instability, debt/no savings, time-crunch, health insurance, etc.

Perhaps this is true for the other items you list, but time-crunch isn’t one of them. The only available data we have on this suggests that poor Americans have significantly more leisure than in the past. There are some questions about the quality of this data, but like I said they are the best we have.

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Javier 03.10.06 at 5:53 pm

Ah, damn it looks my links didn’t work because I wrote the post beforehand in Word. Well, here they are:

1. Problems with the Consumer Price Index.

2. Increased leisure time.

3. The data on consumption inequality.

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harry b 03.10.06 at 6:12 pm

functional, I’d have addressed your question in detail when I had time, but you have been, frankly, a jerk, so I can’t be bothered. I’ll address it another time when I feel like it.

javier, I’ve got a question for you (and others, but your comment 52 prompts it, and I’m guessing from this and other comments I’ve read by you that you might have a particularly helpful response). Here’s the preface; I don’t think that income and wealth inequalities matter except insofar as they have an impact on people’s prospects for having flourishing lives. This why the “why does life have to be so hard for some people” comments are worth making, and the comment above about antidepressants is a sensible one (if it can be fleshed out). So, I agree, that on some perfectly sensible standard of quality the CPI fails to take adequate account of increases in quality. But Robert Frank, Juliet Schor, Richard Layard, et. al. make a big deal of the radical non-correlation between increases in GDP and subjective wellbeing over the past 50 years or so in the US (and, over different timespans, other countries). Suppose we take this finding very seriously, and think of subjective wellbeing as a reasonable proxy for flourishing (a stong assumption, but grant it for the moment). Then the quality of life (the level of flourishing, whatever you call it), which is what really matters, is not rising with growth. So the growth putatively caused by inequality does not benefit the poor.

When I’ve asked people for literature which debunks these findings and their apparent significance, I’ve been told to read James Twitchell (a very clever man, who is either flippant or dishonest when he addresses the point) and no-one else. What do you think (and can you suggest other stuff I should read to get some perspective?). This is a bit off topic, but I co-wrote the post, so feel a certain sense of entitlement.

Tom – we know that philosopher and economists do not think that moral desert is what is at issue. Lay readers of Cato’s website who happen to follow the link here? Maybe. That’s who we’re addressing that portion of the post to; we felt that we should limit ourselves to 2000 words or so, and not address everything.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 6:28 pm

Harry — I apologize for being a jerk. That’s not my intent.

But it seems that my questions ought to have an extremely easy answer — IF there is an answer at all. A good answer would be something like this:

If you look elsewhere, Sen [or someone else, for that matter] does compare America’s level of egalitarianism to the levels found in X number of other countries, and then controls for the myriad of other factors that would affect lifespan. The result shows that egalitarianism has an independent causal effect on health.

Does such a study exist? I’m not looking for a huge amount of detail here; even a simple yes or no would be interesting to know.

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Kevin Donoghue 03.10.06 at 6:32 pm

What do you think Chris/Harry were doing in this passage if not stating a causal relationship?

Like I said, they were pointing out that Schmidtz dwells on favourable trends in the life-expectancy and health of poor Americans, while ignoring the fact that, in societies which are less affluent but more egalitarian, the poor have fared better.

As the title of the post indicates, it is a critique of Schmidtz, who says things like this:

Between 1900 and 2001, life expectancy for whites rose 63%, from 47.6 to 77.7 years. Life expectancy for blacks rose 119%, from 33.0 to 72.2 years. […] Undeniably, the persisting difference between 77.7 years and 72.2 years matters. Just as undeniably, it matters relatively little compared to the difference between 33.0 and 72.2. When it comes to life expectancy, keeping up with the Joneses is not what matters.

You don’t have to believe that inequality causes ill-health to feel that Schmidtz is trying to pull a fast one here. Of course, if you do believe that the stress associated with low social status does real harm, then you will find his cheery tale, of a rising tide which lifts all boats, that much more objectionable. If you click the symbol beside John Quiggin’s name you will find a post or two concerning the relationship between status and health. But I don’t think Chris and Harry are pushing that issue here. They are simply taking Schmidtz to task for his “insinuation” (as you might say, but they don’t) that inequality is good for your health, even if it is better for that of the Joneses.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 6:48 pm

Like I said, they were pointing out that Schmidtz dwells on favourable trends in the life-expectancy and health of poor Americans, while ignoring the fact that, in societies which are less affluent but more egalitarian, the poor have fared better.

So what? That’s irrelevant unless you believe that the egalitarianism of those societies played some causal role. Otherwise, it’s like observing that countries whose names start with the letter “M” have longer lifespans — an interesting but spurious correlation that has no deeper implications for anything.

Schmidtz’s point in that passage is this: What should we care about more, the fact that income inequality grew by X% between 1900 and 2001, or the fact that life expectancy grew by 30+ years in the same time period? Which fact is more important?

Then the response is: “But in two societies that are (it is claimed) more egalitarian, lifespans are even longer.”

How is this responsive in any way? Again, it’s not responsive UNLESS the intent is to suggest that our own lifespans would be even greater if we were more egalitarian.

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Kevin Donoghue 03.10.06 at 7:12 pm

Functional, it seems you not only have your own version of what the Timberites are saying, you have your own version of what Schmidtz is saying. It’s late here so I’ll leave you to it.

I made a mistake in my last comment: as well as John Q., Chris and Harry posted on status syndrome. Put those two words in the “search this site” box to find the posts.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 7:33 pm

“Suppose we take this finding very seriously, and think of subjective wellbeing as a reasonable proxy for flourishing (a stong assumption, but grant it for the moment). Then the quality of life (the level of flourishing, whatever you call it), which is what really matters, is not rising with growth. So the growth putatively caused by inequality does not benefit the poor.”

Of course it doesn’t particularly benefit the rich either if you are going to focus on subjective well-being numbers so there goes the fun out of that argument as far as equality goes. The conceptual problem with subjective well-being numbers is that people are very adaptable and it is almost impossible to match them across personalities–depressive personalities can find something to whine about no matter how well they are doing and some sunny personalities can find something good to focus on even while locked in a death camp. The most amazing thing about the happiness studies is how weak the correlation is between happiness and just about anything we would normally think it should correlate with. None of the studies give methodologically sound results that point definitevly in any helpful direction. It certainly isn’t strong enough to require a complete overhaul of the most successful economic system in the history of the world. The fact that you have to resort to such mushy studies to get a critique of the system shows how amazingly successful it is. I don’t have to reach very far to show you all sorts of ways how Communism continues to economically cripple Cuba for instance. I can show how it went from one of the richest islands in the area to one of the poorest in less than a generation. I can show you how East Germany was damaged compared to West Germany–so much so that it continues to cause problems 15 years later. I don’t have to resort to methodolgically difficult subjective studies.

Also I would like to file an objection to the idea that China counts as an egalitarian society. The Communist Party/non-Communist Party divide is as serious as any remotely comparable split for a similar number of people anywhere in the free world. It may be that Chinese citizens have a greater life expectancy than black males in the US. But the answer to why that would be so can’t be because China is so egalitarian–it isn’t egalitarian.

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harry b 03.10.06 at 8:07 pm

Sebastian — did you notice that I said the point was kind of off-topic? No, we don’t have to resort to those studies to criticise the system. They appear nowhere in that post, and play only a very small role in the arguments that most egalitarians make against the inequalities in, say, the contemporary US. Anyway, it seems that you agree with us on the normative issues!

What you say about China must be right, and I notice that you don’t even depend on the (reasonable) assumption that straightforward income and wealth inequality there has rocketed in the past 15 or so years (we can only assume, I guess). For the same reasons you give, I doubt that Soviet Russia counted as an inegalitarian society or other Communist countries. But why do you imagine for a moment that Chris and I are defending official Communism as any kind of alternative? That would be ungenerous in the extreme, and thus untypical of you! (I win that argument, surely…)

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Jason Bridges 03.10.06 at 9:05 pm

Thanks for the links, Javier. I’ll give ‘em a read.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.10.06 at 9:09 pm

“But why do you imagine for a moment that Chris and I are defending official Communism as any kind of alternative?”

I am not making that assumption. I mention Germany and Cuba only to illustrate how easy it is to point to their economic deficiencies without resorting to happiness studies–which would be suspect anyway since you could be tossed in jail for giving the wrong answers. I mention China only in respect to the narrow life expectancy question raised by Chris above and because I object to incorrectly characterizing it as an egalitarian society. My entire skepticism is on methods. If you could show me a likely way we could get all the economic benefits of competition while letting everyone get everything I would probably be for it if it didn’t involve sacrificing some other important value–I’m not a positive defender of inequality for its own sake. I don’t even claim that the US system is at the optimum balance between economic efficiency and equality–though I do believe that some other systems look better than they would if universally adopted because in limited but important (and costly) areas they can free ride off of US dynamism.

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Functional 03.10.06 at 9:40 pm

Kevin — the Timberites, as you put it, are alive and well and present on this very page, and if I’m mistaken in interpreting their words (which seem obviously to claim that egalitarianism increases lifespan), then they are free to correct me.

You have no alternate theory of what they mean. In fact, you agree with me: Your OWN interpretation ascribes a causal role to egalitarianism (“in societies which are less affluent but more egalitarian, the poor have fared better”). Why you purport to disagree with me is a mystery. Better to play semantic games, I suppose, than to address anything of substance.

(“No, they didn’t say that egalitarianism plays any causal role, they just said that egalitarianism has the effect of making the poor fare better.”)

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Functional 03.10.06 at 9:44 pm

Kevin’s overall message: The Timberites are NOT ascribing any causal role to egalitarianism. What’s more, their citations and previous posts prove that egalitarianism DOES play a causal role.

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Nicholas Weininger 03.10.06 at 10:01 pm

Harry:

you really ought to read Will Wilkinson’s stuff on this topic, both on his blog and on the Happiness and Public Policy blog– specifically his critiques of Layard. He makes a (IMHO) strong case that:

(a) subjective well-being is in fact a *terrible* proxy for flourishing, because of expectations-resetting and because there is much much more to the good life than reported happiness

(b) we should not generally expect increases in material wealth to correlate well with increases in subjective well-being

(c) nonetheless increases in material wealth are still to be regarded as Very Good Things.

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zdenek 03.11.06 at 3:44 am

regarding equality– the position of the reply to Schmidtz seems to be yes there are prior moral constraints on distribution “…redistribution is limited by prior considerations of right and entitlement ..we would not dispute this “,”it is true that much of the wealth people have acquired …is wealth they have legitimate expectation to”, ” we agree that in principle a considerable amount of material inequality …can be justified…”.
This is a huge concession to entitlement theory as far as I can see so where is the defence of equality ? Well it seems to involve a simultaneous criticism of entitlement account to the effect that even though the current rules of the game justify inequality we can tweak and adjust them to achieve egalitarian outcomes.( ignore for the moment the tension here ; lets be charitable ).
But why should this be done i.e. what is the argument for showing that greater equality should be sought considering that it might involve violating moral side constraints ? ( something that the writers have anyway already accepted ). The reply has two answers to this question ; both bad . First there is simply pointing out that there are large inequalities in US/UK but this is useless as an argument about the justification of equality ( question begging ).
The second answer involves a criticism of Nozick’s distinction between patterened and historical principles of entitlement. Again this only shows ( if it works ) that we may impose some preferred pattern on the distribution but it does not show the egalitarian pattern is the morally correct one. And that is the question.

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Chris Bertram 03.11.06 at 4:16 am

They make the startling claim that inequality causes lower lifespans compared to countries with less absolute wealth, and then insinuate that Sen’s book is evidence for this point.

Actually, insofar as there was a causal claim reported in the original post this related to Marmot’s work rather than Sen’s. Functional seems to have neglected one rather important and obvious reading of the relevant paragraph. We were replying to Schmidtz’s use of statistics with some counter-points. The point here is that wealth and income is not the only way of being unequal (or being deprived): life expectancy and health outcomes are other such dimensions. And on those dimensions some of the wealthiest countries in the world (and especially the US) do rather badly for some groups. Schmidtz was inviting his readers to salute the progress made even for the worst-off, we were saying that some of those worst off, on some important dimensions of flourishing, are doing worse than people in countries that are significantly wealth-and-income poorer.

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Chris Bertram 03.11.06 at 4:26 am

zdenek’s latest — “ignore for the moment the tension here ; lets be charitable” — is remarkable from someone who I’m sure I’ve seen endorsing Rawlsian liberalism in some other comments threads. The idea that we might use pure procedural justice (via an appropriately designed basic structure) to promote egalitarian outcomes comes straight out of Rawls. (I actually have some doubts about the strategy, but that’s a topic for another post.) Schmidtz had used considerations of entitlement to argue against egalitarianism, we were perfectly justified in pointing out that (unless you believe that there is one philosophically privileged set of natural rights to acquisition and transfer a la Nozick) then entitlement theory won’t do the work he wants it to.

zdenek also claims that there is no defence of equality in the post. Well of course he’s right in the sense that there’s no comprehensive set of arguments for it (that would be beyond its scope), but the thought that people should not do worse through no fault of their own, the animating idea behind so-called “luck egalitarianism”, features rather prominently in the post (against Schmidtz and Anderson). I’m surprised he didn’t notice.

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Dale 03.11.06 at 4:28 am

I find the redistribution = condescention argument mentioned above interesting. I’ve long thought that the Christian texts, for example, that talk about the least among us, etc., were condescending and hurtful.

I don’t object to the original statements so much as find myself correcting others when they talk like that today. It’s time we learned to speak with a more contemporary spitit of solidarity with those
“below” us on the economic and status scales.

I have a hard time following all the trains of thought presented here. But it seems to me that, following Jared Diamond, we can look at civilization itself as the source of both wealth and inequality. The problem is to what degree can we break that connection between wealth and inequality.

Marxists thought we could transcend that connection by a working class dominated industrial society. Weber and the 20th century have made us all sceptics about that classical Marxist project.

But still, the problem remains. Most people with moral intuitions derived from the spirit of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and their modern secular descendants, remain troubled by what we see as the unnecessary social pathologies generated by modern capitalism- even as we recognize it as the source of existing and even greater possible material abundance. And there seems to be no radical alternative to capitalism.

But there are many versions of capitalism, existing and potential to choose from. I take from Habermas the insight that what we are left with is the need for careful social experimentation in the realms of human emancipation. We have an obligation to base our way of life such that are freedoms and prosperity are not based on the unfreedoms and poverty of others. And at the same time we have to be mature enough to understand that modern industrial societies are something like natural systems (to what extent we don’t know for sure)that have certain systemic requirements.

But it seems like of all the things that we need to be concerned with at this point in history- the maintainance needs of the industrial system need less care than do the need for restoring and nuturing solidarity, equality and human dignity.

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Chris Bertram 03.11.06 at 4:59 am

Tom Hurka: Thanks for your illuminating point about economic desert. I don’t know whether your remarks about Robert Frank indicated an endorsement of a particular standard for this (“being paid their marginal product, i.e. weren’t being paid in proportion to what they actually contributed to their organizations.”) but I should not want to endorse the idea that being paid one’s marginal product is the morally relevant standard for assessing contribution. I could accept the notion of extra compensation for additional labour burden as a reason why some people should get more than others, but I take it that that is merely a smart way of implementing an egalitarian standard rather than a desert-based departure from it.

In the original post we endorse departures from equality, but the grounds on which we do so are basically — though indirectly — consequentialist and forward-looking rather than in terms of deserved reward.

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zdenek 03.11.06 at 5:19 am

Chris- thanks, what I see in the post is a desire to go beyond Rawls ( nothing wrong with that ) but no good theoretical justification is offered. I am sorry but the argument strikes me as being pretty thin ; as if you are talking to the converted . You make some good points against Scmidtz but on the positive side the stuff involves too much hand waving for my taste.

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Brett Bellmore 03.11.06 at 8:46 am

I think the dismissal of Nozick’s concerns is too easy. The essence of ownership is control. As Nozick points out, anyone who is determined to achieve and maintain a particular pattern of distribution doesn’t just have to swap things around once, but must keep doing it. Egalitarianism doesn’t redress inequality of power, it is an exercise of inequality of power, because it can’t be implemented in a society where the egalitarian himself doesn’t have an excess of coercive power.

There’s simply no reason to expect people who have equal rights to come anywhere close to equal wealth in a prosperous society. Off hand, I’d expect something more like a thermal distribution…

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zdenek 03.11.06 at 9:12 am

Re Nozick — one of the things that struck me vividly when I was doing him in grad school was his conviction that there are no known good arguments for egalitarianism ( I thought then that this must be false ) ; the best one being Bernard Williams defence to which Nozick has a powerful counterexample. It seems he was right.

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Brett Bellmore 03.11.06 at 9:16 am

BTW, my travels in asia have given me the impression that, just maybe, the reason poor people in some places outside the US are healthier, is that they are unavoidably physically fit: They’ve got to work hard at manual labor, or starve.

In a free society, poverty is usually a consequence of bad choices. (Usually, because luck is a factor, too, even if over-rated in the long run.) And bad lifestyle choices lead to poor health, of exactly the sort that you see in the poor in this country. I don’t see how you can avoid the correlation between poor health and poverty, then, so long as people are free to eat junk food and not exercise, and the people smart enough to take care of themselves are also smart enough to do well.

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Ben A 03.11.06 at 10:31 am

Thanks to Harry and Chris for taking time to engage in this interesting discussion. I tend to agree with zdnek that I would have liked to see more from them on what they take the positive arguments for equality to be. I read two central arguments here, and maybe it would be helpful to outline each and then ask some questions:

1. Positional goods/impact of relative position

I hope we all admit that if relative position on a distribution leads to lower absolute human flourishing, this is a point in favor of equalizing that distribution. (just as I likewise hope that “X lowers human flourishing –> ceteris paribus, we should oppose X” is a general argument form accepted by all). Fine.

I find very plausible the claim that some goods are positional, and that the impact of positional goods on human flourishing can be substantial. Nonetheless I join with many other people on this thread in asking Harry and Chris to do more to clarify what evidence they believe supports the importance of positional goods. There’s not much meat on this topic here. In that sense the Harry and Chris’ discussion parallels Schmidtz’s claim (via Anderson) that luck egalitarian policies involve disrespect. Perhaps, but one wants evidence.

2. Fairness

Giving one runner a 50M head start in the 100M dash is unfair, and this is an unfairness to be opposed. Is life within a society a race, or isn’t it? Here, Chris and Harry’s rhetorical sleight of hand mischaracterizes Schmidtz. Schmidtz doesn’t view society as a race. He doesn’t think it a concern of justice that two people have different chances of achieving the nth position. He does, I suspect, consider it a concern of justice to increase every person’s chance of living a worthy life. These conceptions aren’t the same, and one wants to hear a great deal more from Chris and Harry about why the race conception is the correct one.

To put the point another way, for inequality due to unfairness to be bad, it simply must be the case that net increases can be bad. Thus, we must be concerned not merely about someone having less through no fault of his own, but with someone having more through no virtue of his own. I don’t know what Chris and Harry think about this. Their comments suggest that because access to certain advantages is competitive, society can correctly be viewed as a something like a race. If so, initial advantages (and not just deficits) can be bad, and should (ceteris paribus) be leveled. Is this in fact their view?

3. Last point: Confusing inequality with want

This is probably beneath mention, but because all these essays are at least a bit polemical, I will anyway. Here’s a point we should all agree on:

Evidence that insufficiency is harmful does not constitute evidence that inequality is harmful

It is indeed very terrible that 25% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. It is terrible when people lack the material preconditions necessary to live a fully flourishing human life. What is terrible here, however, is insufficiency. Egalitarians may believe that inequality causes or exacerbates insufficiency, or that inequality in the absence of insufficiency is unjust. What they cannot do is simply point to the harm of insufficiency as evidence for their position.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 03.11.06 at 11:34 am

“The point here is that wealth and income is not the only way of being unequal (or being deprived): life expectancy and health outcomes are other such dimensions. And on those dimensions some of the wealthiest countries in the world (and especially the US) do rather badly for some groups. Schmidtz was inviting his readers to salute the progress made even for the worst-off, we were saying that some of those worst off, on some important dimensions of flourishing, are doing worse than people in countries that are significantly wealth-and-income poorer.”

But especially on matters of personal health, personal choice can have quite a bit to do with it. Americans are famous for making poor choices about eating and exercising. It may very well be that some sub-groups emphasize even worse choices than the US mean. That isn’t a failure of income distribution. If anything it may be indicative of a malign success. The US is so fantastically rich, even for its poor members, that someone can indulge in bad habits for decades before the consequences catch up with them. This is a social problem, indeed. But not a problem of inequality.

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Chris Bertram 03.11.06 at 11:58 am

ben a: thanks for your comments.

You ask for more comments on positional goods. In the previous thread on the Schmidtz paper Harry linked to a paper he’s written with Adam Swift on precisely this question, so I refer you there:

http://tinyurl.com/sxwwc

On the “society as a race” question I think you are wrong to say that we mischaracterize Schmidtz. As we say above (the three paras beginning “At its foundation ….) Schmidtz denies that society is a race but helps himself to lots of metaphors of games, winners, losers etc when it suits him.

On sufficiency. I’m generally more sympathetic to an Anderson-like sufficientarian position than Harry is, but whether a view turns out to be sufficientarian or egalitarian will sometimes turn on the metric we use for interpersonal comparison. On this see Sen’s comments in his Inequality Re-examined on Frankfurt’s sufficientarian “Equality as a Moral Ideal”. I would however deny, for reasons of fairness, that there is no injustice when everyone is above the sufficiency threshold. Example: senior women executives who suffer worse career prospects than their male colleagues are victims of comparative injustice, even though both they and their male colleagues are wealthy enough to enjoy good lives. (The example needs lots of qualification and further specification, but you should be able to supply that for yourself.)

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Chris Bertram 03.11.06 at 12:01 pm

Oh, and a brief addendum on:

“Evidence that insufficiency is harmful does not constitute evidence that inequality is harmful”

Agreed. But one reason to be opposed to great inequality is because relative disadvantage in the space of commodities can lead to absolute disadvantage in the space of capabilities (and thereby to a fall below a sufficiency threshold with respect to some capability). See Sen’s famous paper “Poor Relatively Speaking”.

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Javier 03.11.06 at 12:40 pm

Harry, you’re asking a big question, but let me sketch a response to it. To recap:

Here’s the preface; I don’t think that income and wealth inequalities matter except insofar as they have an impact on people’s prospects for having flourishing lives…. Then the quality of life (the level of flourishing, whatever you call it), which is what really matters, is not rising with growth. So the growth putatively caused by inequality does not benefit the poor.

So here’s my first response:

1. While self-reported happiness hasn’t increased in the past half century (or rather, it’s only increased very slowly), life expectancy for the poor has increased by about 10 years. If the poor are as happy as they were 50 years ago, then they should now live even happier lives overall because they live longer lives. For example, suppose that I live 5 years and these are very happy years. If I live 5 more years in addition to the first 5, then overall I’ve lived a happier life. Perhaps we can’t sum happiness across a life in this way. However, intuitively I would say that, to the extent that I live longer, I live a more valuable and worthwhile life, provided that my life was valuable in the first place.

2. Rising life expectancy is probably at least partly caused by new medicial technologies and drugs. There is plenty of research to corroborate this point. And this new medicial technology would probably never have been developed without additional wealth to finance medical R&D.

3. These are my own musings and I don’t know if they’re right. For a more sophisticated view, I would recommend Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which makes the following points. First, while the overall wealth of a society doesn’t seem to increase self-reported happiness, the rate of growth does have an impact. If an economy is growing rapidly, people become more optimistic and optimism is important for happiness. Second, if growth is proceeding rapidly, society becomes more generous, inclusive, and progressive because people feel that the struggle for wealth is not a zero-sum game and so are more willing to finance redistribution and welcome unskilled immigrants, among other things.

4. None of this directly speaks to the point that the United States’ current distribution of income is necessary to achieve rapid growth. It certainly may not be. Other countries have experienced relatively rapid growth without American levels of income inequality (several Scandinavian countries come to mind).

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harry b 03.11.06 at 12:52 pm

Thanks javier; you first point must be right (but I’ll report back when I’m old myself), and I can see the second point, although I can also see lots of complications with it). Thanks, too, for pointing me to Friedman, which I’ll make my next book-to-read as a consequence.

I think your 4th point (which you also make further up) is helpful for sorting out a great deal of the non-normative part of the discussion that’s going on in this thread, so when I have time (which may not be for anohter week, in fact) I’ll take the liberty of using it to do a post on the lessons I think I’ve learned from this debate. Thanks again.

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abb1 03.11.06 at 1:10 pm

Arguing against ‘inequality’ is like arguing against death when what you really are complaining against is murder.

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Ben A 03.11.06 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the response, Chris.

It’s certainly true that distributions can be so unequal as to yield absolute loss of capability. Yet the fix for this need not be equality; rather, all that is required is a distribution that does not yield absolute loss of capability. This may still be an unequal distribution.

I raise this point because one often sees a two different conceptions or justifications of equality run together. In the first version, equality is a tool. This is the advocacy of equality supported by positional goods arguments, and by relative inequality –> absolute incapacity arguments. The idea being that the current distribution causes various problems that a more equal distribution would ameliorate. In these cases, we shouldn’t make a fetish of “equality” — what we are seeking is, for lack of a better term, propinquity of a relevant kind.

The second version comprises cases where we really do want to insist on equality: equality before the law, equality in respect, equal treatment. These are cases where our moral motivation is fairness or respect.

I think there are enormous intellectual and tactical benefits from clearly separating the two ways in which equality can be a goal. And without giving it too much thought, I would diagnose the shift between these two justifications, and the overly broad use of fairness/respect arguments for equality as responsible for so much of the egalitarianism that liberals like Anderson finds embarrassing.

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Z 03.11.06 at 11:59 pm

It is rare and precious to have the Crooked Timberites themselves intervening so much in a debate. I regret arriving so late. In my opinion, the crux of the argument is here

The rules, moreoever, are not simply a given. They are human artefacts that we can tweak and adjust so as to achieve more or less egalitarian outcomes
I believe equiality and inequality reflects not only rational choices but also mentalities and values whose origins are not to be found (solely) in rational thoughts (I find this book to be an important reference on this topic, if you can’t read french maybe this one). However, I believe every reasonnable person, whatever his political preferences (supposing he is in favor of democracy) and cultural attitudes, can accept the idea that each citizen has a right to enter the game of defining the rules. So everyone, not 99%, should in my opinion have access to the social conditions (that includes but is not restricted to material wealth) necessary to enter the democratic arena. Méditations pascaliennes have very beautiful pages about universalizing the access to universalized values with which I couldn’t agree more (and which supersede Rawls’ work in my very humbe opinion).

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zdenek 03.12.06 at 4:25 am

Chris- do you think I could have the refference to the Frankfurt paper ? cant find it ,thanks.

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Chris Bertram 03.13.06 at 3:53 am

Frankfurt, Harry, 1987, “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” Ethics 98 (1987) 21-42.

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