To follow up on Bas’s recent post, I’d like to briefly revisit the most powerful argument for thinking that poverty rather than material inequality per se is what matters morally: the leveling down objection. If material equality is intrinsically valuable, then we have reason to equalize even when it harms some (or even everyone) and benefits none. Here’s Derek Parfit, the originator of the objection:

If inequality is bad, its disappearance must be in one way a change for the better, however this change occurs. Suppose that, in some natural disaster, those who are better off lose all their extra resources, and become as badly off as everyone else. Since this change would remove the inequality, it must be in one way welcome . . .  Though this disaster would be worse for some people, and better for no one, it must be, in one way, a change for the better. Similarly, it would be in one way an improvement if we destroyed the eyes of the sighted, not to benefit the blind, but only to make the sighted blind. These implications can be more plausibly regarded as monstrous, or absurd (“Equality and Priority“).

Indeed, insofar as material inequality is intrinsically valuable, we have reason to equalize even when equalization harms those who are very poor in absolute terms. In this case, egalitarianism is in direct conflict with humanitarianism.

Since we don’t have reason to equalize when it harms some and benefits none, we can infer the material equality has no intrinsic value. Of course, it could still be the case that material inequality has instrumental value as a means to poverty alleviation, etc. But that’s an empirical issue, not a philosophical one.

Some egalitarian political philosophers maintain that material equality is intrinsically valuable but reject leveling down all things considered. They claim that we have some reason to level down, even in Parfit’s blindness case, but our reason to promote well-being is stronger. This claim strikes me as counterintuitive–I agree with Parfit that it is in no way an improvement if we harm some and benefit none. But even if I’m wrong and there is some reason to equalize for its own sake, egalitarianism remains pretty toothless at the practical level: if well-being trumps equality, then the bottom line is that our institutions shouldn’t promote equality at the expense of well-being.

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Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is all the rage right now. You know the gist: Piketty thinks capitalism has an inherent tendency to ever-increasing inequality. Indeed, he thinks capitalism leads to terrifying, destabilizing (his terms) inequality.

Maybe he is right about this, maybe he is not. I have not yet finished the book and, in any case, am not qualified to say. However, I have been struck by the reception of this book. It borders on adulation. Many public intellectuals seem to think they have finally found the scientific proof for what they knew all along: how capitalism is unfair, unjust, and ultimately ridden with “contradictions.”

This kind of reception should make us uncomfortable. We are hardwired to see the evidence in light of our ideological commitments, and intertwining the empirical with the moral makes it very difficult, if not practically impossible, for ideologically motivated people to reason correctly. (For some among many studies showing this effect, see here and here.) In the book, Piketty explicitly flirts with the Marxist left, couches his arguments in ethical terms, and proposes policies that clearly align him on one side of the ideological spectrum. And the reviews have by and large been just a little too relieved, too gleeful, a little too enthusiastic.

This is not good news for those among us who seek the truth. Yesterday, Tyler Cowen approvingly linked to a critical review of Piketty’s book by Clive Crook. Crook too notes the “erotic intensity” with which the book has been received. And he makes some good points about the importance of focusing on making sure economic growth benefits all, rather than inequality. That, I agree, should really be the major issue of our time. And the reception of Piketty’s book largely distracts form it.

One “R.A.”, blogging at the economist, disagrees. Responding to the Crook review, s/he writes:

Why do we care about inequality? We care about it because we are human, and we can’t help but be concerned about matters of fairness, however much economists might wish that were not the case. But what Mr Crook seems not to understand is that we also care about it because we care about living standards. Mr Piketty’s book does an able job showing that high levels and concentrations of capital have not been a necessary or sufficient condition for rapid growth in the past, though they have often sowed the seeds for political backlash that is detrimental to long-run growth. His argument is that the living standards of many people around the rich world are now unnecessarily low, because of the nonchalance with which elites have approached distributional issues over the past generation, and that continued heedlessness of this sort will ultimately undermine the growth-boosting institutions of capitalism. His argument is that economic growth that concentrates benefits on a small group of people will probably not be tolerated as fair, even if living standards among the masses are not completely stagnant.

It is an argument that is powerful and well-supported by the data—and extremely relevant today, whether or not one thinks inequality qualifies as the defining issue of the era. That, it seems to me, is why the book has been received as it has.

True: the importance of inequality is ultimately an ethical issue. And that issue is independent of the truth about whether inequality is growing or not. Piketty’s book might well have uncovered the truth about this matter. (Although Cowen in his own review of the book offers some important questions.) But even if inequality is growing, that does not settle the ethical question.

“R.A.” misses this point. Part of Crook’s message is precisely that inequality per se need not bother us as much as it does the Piketty-acolytes. (And the mere fact that many people do care about the issue does not show that we should care.) What matters is that living standards keep rising, and keep rising for all. That has been the crucial engine of humanity’s greatest achievements in poverty reduction, increases of life expectancy, literacy, culture high and low, and so on.

It may be true, of course, that real economic growth need not come with great increases of inequality. And it is clearly true that great increases of inequality do not imply real economic growth. But all that leaves open whether policies designed to reduce inequality, and transfer resources from rich to poor, carry significant risks of slowing down real growth.

If they do – and all the ones I have heard clearly do (read the section “Taxman” in Cowen’s review) – that remains, despite Piketty, an important concern. And one with profound moral implications. It is, or rather should be, central to our thinking about fairness. We cannot simply focus on inequality, therefore. Whether or not markets are fair depends in part on whether they help rise living standards. And if they do so unequally, well, maybe that is par for the course.

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A topical issue in the global justice literature is territory. Mainstream writers have taken the position that collective entities, including states, are the ultimate title holders of land and resources (see here and here.) On this view, states may enforce a system of private property rights if they judge it the best way to create wealth, but the ultimate title to land and resources is in the state or other collective entity on behalf of the people, and not on individual owners.  Global justice, it is thought, is agnostic among various property regimes. A state may permissibly be capitalist, socialist, or a mix of both. And, on this view, a legitimate state always has the sovereign prerogative of expropriating land and resources. (Writers attach various conditions, such as the need to respect basic rights, the democratic nature of the appropriation, and so on.)

As against this collectivist view of territory, Lockean liberals claim that the state’s territorial sovereignty can only be justified as a cluster of powers that individuals have delegated to the state (see here and here). All justified power is delegated power, and the power over territory is no exception.  In the words of Hillel Steiner, “a group’s legitimate territorial claims can extend no further than the legitimate territorial holdings of its members or their agents.”  There is no such thing as undelegated territorial sovereignty.

Following in these venerable steps, in a forthcoming article I define the territory of the state as the sum of (1) the privately-owned space over which owners have delegated executive functions to the state, and (2) the space, ceded by private owners, that the state needs to discharge its delegated functions, that is, public property in a broad sense (“The Mystery of Territorial Sovereignty,” Social Philosophy & Policy, forthcoming.) Internally, the territorial powers of the state vis-á-vis its citizens derive from the land rights persons have. Externally, the powers of the state vis-á-vis foreigners derive from whatever exclusionary land powers individuals have delegated to the state.

One consequence of my argument is that only persons can originally own material resources. There is no original collective title over resources. Another consequence is that principles of global justice cannot be agnostic among property regimes. Socialism and similar forms of collective management and allocation are unjust (this conclusion is supported by other arguments as well.)

But the most important consequence of the view I defend is that no actual state has legitimate title over territory, because no actual state exercises territorial powers delegated by individuals. States have come into existence through various forms of skullduggery –fraud and murder against outsiders and insiders.

In my judgment, by supporting the primacy of the state’s jurisdictional powers global justice scholars have gone awry in at least two respects. They have largely endorsed the statist status quo, and they have failed to recognize the value of private property rights for addressing precisely the problems they profess to care about.

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