As one prominent editorial writer has recently observed, we are a nation “obsessed” with inequality: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/2012/04/18/the_inequality_obsession_277904.html. Countless academic studies have been conducted in order to determine whether, over the last several decades, the United States has become more or less equal in terms of our incomes and wealth, and how we compare in this regard to other developed countries. Our politicians make constant, sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle, appeals for the government to, as President Obama put it, “spread the wealth around.” And, it must be said, a substantial portion of voters seem amenable to this demand.
Of course, if inequality arises because some people or groups unjustly take resources from others by force or fraud, then such wrongs must be rectified. And, no doubt, a great deal of illegitimate misappropriation has taken place through our never-ending bailouts, subsidies, tax preferences, Solyndra-style grants and loan guarantees, and other forms of corporate rent-seeking. As discussed in an earlier post, //naturalrightslibertarian.com/2012/02/libertarianism-egalitarianism-and-the-needy, on balance the activist state works against the interests of the poor. So, if our leaders sincerely wished to help low-income workers, they would stop engaging in these massive social engineering projects.
Although they may pay lip service to equality, our politicians pass such laws in order to pander to powerful constituencies. Moreover, they rarely resort to overtly Marxist rhetoric to the effect that the nasty capitalists are stealing the labor of their workers. Indeed, it seems implausible that when an entrepreneur like Mark Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire, this wealth comes at the expense of the poor.
This raises the interesting question of whether there is something virtuous about equality per se or, conversely, whether there is something vicious about the inequality that naturally arises because the distribution of talent (and luck) resembles the familiar bell curve, with a few outliers at either end. If the latter, then perhaps the government is justified in trying to redistribute wealth.
Philosophers are prone to reject simple resource equality (as opposed to equality of opportunity) as the sole political/moral virtue because of what has come to be known as the “leveling down” objection, which goes as follows. Imagine two societies that are alike in every respect but one. In society A, everyone has exactly the same level of wealth, which sadly turns out to be what the typical half-starved North Korean peasant possesses. Society B is much more unequal: there are many billionaires and multi-billionaires who enjoy privileges and perquisites only imagined by the masses, but even the worst-off members have the lifestyle enjoyed by the solidly middle class here.
If equality were the sole or primary social good, then we should prefer society A over society B, but this is clearly absurd. Of course, egalitarians may seek to meet this objection by asserting that while equality is not the sole moral value, it is nevertheless an important good that should not be ignored. However, since society A is a perfect one from the perspective of resource equality, it should be possibly to identify something good about it, but I can’t. And, surely the answer can’t be “well, at least everyone has the same,” because that simply assumes what must be proven.
However flawed the ideal of material equality is upon closer inspection, it undeniably has great attraction for many. How do we explain the mass appeal of an intellectually bankrupt idea? Well, I have a theory.
I believe that equality is a proxy for other goods that persons really value. That is to say that we collectively tend to prefer societies with relatively egalitarian distributions of income and wealth because we assume, without thinking much about it, that such communities have other desirable attributes. I strongly suspect that there is no single good that equality “stands in” for, but rather that there a variety of preferences at work.
For example, many individuals might assume that a society with roughly equal shares of resources would in general be happier than one with great inequality because there would be less envy, and because of the notion of marginal utility, i.e. that the poor and middle classes derive more satisfaction from an additional dollar than do the rich. Alternatively, because feudal and other authoritarian societies are generally characterized by great inequality, some may presume that in a society with a relatively equal division of wealth there is little or no exploitation of the weak by the powerful, i.e. that people are generally getting what they deserve.
Just to be clear, I don’t regard these alternative reasons for favoring egalitarian outcomes as persuasive. To the contrary, I believe they are built on faulty moral and factual premises. But, we might make more progress in convincing people that egalitarian theories of justice are implausible if we addressed their real concerns.