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Liberty & Equality

Let’s Be Reasonable!

Philip Badger tries to convince us to be optimistic about human equality.

One shared ambition of philosophy and social science has been to understand the origins of conflict in human society. The evidence from social psychology is mixed, with some studies suggesting that conflict can be reduced by the establishment of shared goals (Muzafer Sherif, The ‘Robbers Cave Experiment’, 1961), whilst others suggest that evolutionary pressures will always undermine such efforts. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Jonathan Haidt gives us the striking metaphor that the ‘irrational elephant’ (the visceral part of ourselves that has its origins early in our evolution) is always going to escape the control of the ‘rational elephant rider’.

In their 2010 book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket argued that the evidence from social science shows inequality to be the key to understanding such social dysfunction. The evidence they cite is correlational rather than causal – it suggests that less equal societies tend to do worse on a range of indicators of well-being, including health and levels of violence, than more equal ones (though other factors such as environmental lead levels are also involved, complicating an otherwise clear picture). Research by Michael Marmot (‘Social determinants of health inequalities’, The Lancet 2005), and Carol Shively (American Journal of Primatology 2009), has given us an account of how inequality might cause the problems Wilkinson and Pickett describe. Inequality, at least in the extreme, is bad for us and for our societies.

Responses to this idea have been interesting. Some have taken issue with the empirical status of Wilkinson and Pickets’ case; but the vitriolic quality of some, usually libertarian, critiques, suggests that they have poked someone’s metaphorical elephant with a mighty stick.

For the sake of convenience, here’s a brief list of the anti-egalitarian arguments:

1. Inequality is natural and so can’t/shouldn’t be altered;

2. Inequality is beneficial and so shouldn’t be altered;

3. Inequality is not great, but interventions to reduce it will make matters worse by, for example, creating welfare dependency or destroying jobs;

4. Inequality is just and so shouldn’t be altered.

India slum
The reality of inequality: a slum setttlement

Let’s consider each of these arguments in turn:

1. Inequality is natural and so can’t/shouldn’t be altered

It is not hard to see that appeals from what is natural don’t have much traction in terms of what we should do: smallpox is natural but we worked hard to eliminate it. The thought that we can’t do anything about inequality is often based on the claim, reiterated by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in 2013, that inequality is genetic and so unalterable. In fact the research Johnson referred to – by Robert Plomin in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2013) – suggests that while potential is fixed by genetics, its realisation is dependent on environmental factors. Additional evidence for this is provided by the Perry Preschool Project (1962 on), a study of the educational and lifetime impact of intensive preschool support for disadvantaged children. In a paper for the Society for Research in Child Development, Lawrence Schweinhart et al (2003) estimated that every dollar spent in that project saved sixteen dollars in lifetime welfare spending on its relatively socially mobile participants compared to a control group.

2. Inequality is beneficial and so shouldn’t be altered

This argument amounts to the claim that because some inequality may be ‘beneficial’ in the sense of providing incentives for hard work, more inequality must be even more beneficial.

The late Harvard philosopher John Rawls agreed that a limited amount of inequality might increase the prosperity of all by providing incentives, but argued that we should tolerate inequality only so far as it demonstrably benefits the worst off (This is his famous ‘maximin’ principle). Being a follower of Immanuel Kant, Rawls opposed the view that the justice of a policy depends entirely on its consequences. However, he suggested that consequences can be taken into account so long as we gave absolute respect to the ‘liberty principle’ – the idea that our actions should not be interfered with as long as they don’t impinge on the liberty of others. So he suggested a ‘lexical ordering’ of principles – in other words, a hierarchy – in which weight could be given to consequences under certain circumstances. This matters to our discussion because while Rawls favoured some reduction of inequality in the United States, he might have done so more strongly given the evidence provided by Wilkinson and Picket.

3. Inequality is not great, but interventions to reduce it will make matters worse by creating welfare dependency or destroying jobs

This is an apparently empirical argument against egalitarianism based on a deep faith in the powers of the free market to maximise welfare – what Adam Smith called the ‘unseen hand’. I use the words ‘apparently’ and ‘faith’ deliberately, because there is a set of assumptions at work here about what must be true.

This set of assumptions comes under the collective name of ‘neoliberalism’. Neoliberal economists assert that: a) Goods in a market find their own price level in response to demand; b) Attempts to interfere with the price of a particular ‘good’ (such as labour) by setting, for example, a minimum wage, will reduce demand for that good (so unemployment will increase); c) Other attempts at inequality reduction (e.g. welfare spending) are misguided because they create a ‘perverse incentive’ for people to become ‘welfare dependent’.

The message is simple; if we want to maximise human welfare, we should leave the market to itself. Karl Popper said that a theory is meaningless if there is no way to test if it is false; he gave Marxism as an example, but neoliberalism is apparently just as untestable; when catastrophe strikes the global market, as it did in 2008, neoliberal apologists are quick to deny that this is evidence of ‘market failure’.

In fact, many eminent economists, including Nobel Prize winners (e.g., Paul Krugman, End This Depression Now!, 2012), tell a different story about our recent woes. For these theorists, the problem is again inequality, or, more precisely, too much of it. Specifically, the deregulation and deunionisation of the labour market, rationalised by neoliberals as being necessary for competitiveness (and suggesting that freedom is compatible with our being preyed upon by what John Stuart Mill called the “lesser harpies”) led to reduced wages and falling demand, which could only be ameliorated by increasing levels of private debt. Minimally-regulated banks were glib about this because the debt was backed up by assets (peoples’ homes) that were assumed to be likely to continue to rise in value (a spectacular bit of faith-based reasoning), and because they thought they could protect themselves by sheltering in a house of straw called ‘securitised debt trading’. It became clear that that house had no foundations when chaos ensued, leaving the perverse impression, once states bailed out the banks, that profligate public spending was the problem. This theory is controversial, but at the least it demonstrates something fishy about the assumptions of neoliberalism.

A good introduction to this and other themes in the philosophy of economics, including an examination of whether we should see the economy simply as the sum total of individual actions or as having some kind of reality over and above this, can be found in Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: A User’s Guide (2014). Most interesting for us here is his rejection of the view that neoliberalism gains credibility from being a ‘value-free’ approach to economics. Rather, Chang acknowledges that conflicts about values drive competing economic perspectives. In particular, he sees neoliberalism’s current dominance as the latest stage in the evolution of an ideological arms race between capital and labour (globalisation being its structural counterpart), which has hobbled progressive liberalism. In fact, since Thatcher and Reagan convinced most of us, including a now cynical electorate and political class, that “there is no alternative” to a radically free market, ‘trickle down’ has turned upside-down, into an ‘Archimedean screw’ conveying resources ever higher up the social scale, into the pockets of the increasingly rich (OECD Report, 2014).

4. Inequality is just and so shouldn’t be altered

Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain, philosophy’s only famous basketball player
Pic © Fred Palumbo 1959

This argument’s proponents should get credit for being open about their aims. There is no pretence here of justifying inequality by reference to its alleged benefits. Instead, we have the claim that if I have wealth, then, provided I didn’t get it illegally, I’m entitled to keep it. The most prominent advocate of this position was the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, friend and sparring partner of John Rawls. In Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Nozick argued that the record earnings of sportsman Wilt Chamberlain shouldn’t be subject to any kind of redistributive taxation, as advocated by ‘patterned’ theories of justice, such as that of Rawls. For Nozick such redistribution is a violation of Chamberlain’s ‘negative right’ to be left alone, and a kind of theft of what he has justly earned.

However, there are problems with Nozick’s argument that one is simply entitled to what one can legally make. Firstly, it is not clear that one’s circumstances in life are always due to merit. I have a fairly pleasant lifestyle, for which I work hard, but it has only become possible because of my state-supported education. This is an example of an ‘autonomy enhancing’ result of the redistribution of wealth that economists call a ‘universal benefit in kind’, and an illustration of the truism that even equality of opportunity requires some reduction of free market inequalities. Giving my gains as a result of state taxation, justifications for keeping all I earn are already beginning to look churlish, and this makes me happy to pay into the collective pot.

Secondly, I may inherit some wealth. This might arguably be ethically justifiable, but even so, the notion that I have done anything to ‘deserve’ it seems highly questionable (Mill favoured high inheritance taxes on these grounds, and one pertinent criticism of Wilkinson and Picket is that they ignore the role played by inherited wealth in maintaining inequality – see Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, 2013).

Where Do We Go From Here?

If we are convinced by Wilkinson and Picket’s evidence that the engine of social conflict is (growing) inequality, and we find no decisive arguments against reducing it, we still have to decide how we might best do so.

For Wilkinson and Picket themselves, welfare is the answer. There are reasons to think they are only partly right. Firstly, some, such as the journalist David Goodhart in an article in Prospect in February 2004, have argued that societies with high degrees of cultural diversity can’t sustain the levels of welfare spending possible in monocultures, because people have insufficient sympathy for those unlike themselves. Recent falls in Swedish support for welfare have been attributed to increasing ethnic diversity, for example. Perhaps trust and solidarity between groups might be increased by establishing shared goals (as Sherif’s research seemed to indicate). But even so, enhanced welfare raises the danger of perceived dependency. Anyway, if we want to promote the autonomy of our fellow citizens, they need more than charity. A better approach would concentrate on raising the wages of the working poor. Neoliberals assume that welfare cuts ‘make work pay’, but higher wages would do this even better, and mean that indigenous workers might afford to take the jobs currently filled by migrants.

The problems here are twofold: firstly, that increasing wages may decrease the demand for workers, causing higher unemployment; secondly, that the causes of pay stagnation in developed economies run deeper than can be fixed by simple wage legislation. Specifically, highly skilled jobs have been outsourced through globalisation, filled by skilled migrant workers (whose training costs the host economy has avoided), or destroyed by automation. To take the UK (where I live) as an example, this has left an economy polarised between a high earning financial services industry, and a poorly trained and poorly paid service sector, in which workers have little prospect for advancement. Politicians often blame low levels of student aspiration and poor skills on schools, but it’s the missing rungs of the ladder that demotivate young people, encouraging instead an escapist culture of celebrity fantasy. What has been called ‘absolute mobility’ is dependent on quality jobs for people to move into. Economies which are focused on short-term profit maximisation, and which use socially-destructive deregulated cheap labour and long hours to compensate for low levels of investment, aren’t good at that.

In fact, both US and UK Governments subsidise low wage jobs by paying ‘tax credits’ to workers (making businesses ‘welfare dependent’). The solution could involve diverting this money into grants for companies to invest in R&D, training, and capital expenditure (especially when it’s ‘green’), while making them pay a regionally variable living wage. This might promote the kind of structural and regional ‘rebalancing’ of their economies that politicians and economists favour (see Danny Dorling, All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster, 2014).

Some economists argue that the processes that have reduced the skilled manual sector to a shadow of its former self will do the same for middle class occupations. Fifty years from now, it is indeed possible that children won’t be spending most of their time in schools, and that many of today’s medical experts will have technological replacements (Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age, 2014). Perhaps new occupations will emerge; but we might have to consider ‘work rationing’ (starting with incremental moves towards shorter working hours) and paying people a ‘social wage’. This would be moving beyond both modernist and postmodernist notions of identity – modernity defines us by what we do, and postmodernity by our consumption choices – so that we come to define ourselves by the quality of our relationships and our efforts to improve ourselves according to our large-scale concepts of ‘the good’ (J.M. Keynes predicted as much in 1930). But this change may be crucial if our current model of economic growth has to be abandoned in the face of climate change and the suffering it will bring. Then we’ll have to give up relying on a ‘rising tide’ of wealth to ‘lift the boats’ of the poor, and take redistribution seriously.

Some Final Points

Apart from reiterating the divide between ‘progressive’ and ‘neo’ liberals (the former see freedom as demanding more than benign neglect), other points of philosophical interest emerge.

Firstly, social science might count as a ‘real science’ after all: The policies I’ve talked about should bring about ‘better than trend’ improvements in the mental and physical health of the population, and falls in violence. But if they don’t, the theory behind them is falsified, in good Popperian fashion.

Secondly, with our ‘elephants’ calmed, philosophy might play a larger role in education. The Age of Reason might actually arrive, freeing us from what Mill called ‘the despotism of custom’, and enhancing our capacity to re-evaluate the narratives that shape our identities. This idea will seem strange to those economists who see education in strictly utilitarian terms, but not to philosophers. (For a robust defence of liberal notions of education see Stephen Law, The War for Children’s Minds, 2006.)

For Kant, freedom (that is, autonomy) involves more than being able to act on our instincts and socially-conditioned desires without reflection. His view has seemed to some (for example, Isaiah Berlin) close to paternalism; but borrowing from the ‘capabilities’ approach of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, I’ve maintained liberal neutrality and avoided telling anyone how to live or what their large-scale concepts of the good should be. My only requirement is that people have the opportunity to form such concepts, and live by their lights. What we find good or not good are matters of individual inclination and conscience; but the limitation of suffering and fullest realisation of our autonomy depend upon collective effort.

© Philip Badger 2015

Phil Badger studied social sciences, including economics, psychology, and social policy, with philosophy, and teaches at King Edward VII School in Sheffield. This article is dedicated to his father, William Badger (1923-2014), who first inspired his love of argument and debate.

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