Inequality and poverty; history and counterfactuals

by Paul Segal on November 17, 2022

In 1979 Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption (he more recently of the UK’s Supreme Court) wrote:

A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat. It is not poor if it cannot afford endless smokes and it does not become poor by the mere fact that other people can afford them. A person who enjoys a standard of living equal to that of a medieval baron cannot be described as poor for the sole reason that he has chanced to be born into a society where the great majority can live like medieval kings. By any absolute standard there is very little poverty in Britain today.

There are a lot of things wrong with this passage, which informed Joseph’s policy advice to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of the UK. But it raises important questions about counterfactuals in thinking about inequality, poverty, and well-being. 

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