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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  • TheBrett

    if well-being trumps equality, then the bottom line is that our
    institutions shouldn’t promote equality at the expense of well-being.

    At a practical level, it’s not an “either-or” trade-off. Institutions that promote well-being often also promote equalizing, such as social safety nets and consumer regulations.

    • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

      What he said was: “our institutions shouldn’t promote equality at the expense of well-being.”

      • Sean II

        “Our institutions shouldn’t promote equality at the expense of well-being.”

        Said the promoters of equality: “Yeah, but see….there isn’t another way.”

    • Theresa Klein

      I think you’re overly confident that our current social safety nets and consumer regulations actually promote either well-being or equality.
      One can make good arguments that they do neither.
      For instance consumer regulations often promote inequality by unfairly advantaging large businesses over smaller and newer competitors.

      • TheBrett

        Depends on the consumer regulations.

        • Matthew Tanous

          No, all consumer regulations advantage large business over smaller and newer competition. The ONLY justification for such a policy is the supposed “market failure” – which itself depends on people choosing the expensive, sub-par quality good over the alternatives for reasons unknown.

          • TheBrett

            Bigger companies can have an advantage over smaller ones, although it depends on the regulation. As for it being about “market failure”, that’s part of it – it’s also about preventing calamities from happening as opposed to trying to rectify them only through the legal system after people are dead/sick/injured.

          • Theresa Klein

            You’re also underestimating the extent to which the risk of liability forces businesses to improve safety before the fact, not after it.
            Nozick argues in favor of mandatory liability insurance. In which case, the insurer will set rates and policies to minimize their risk of incurring claims or losing money. Which means the insurer will want to perform their own inspections and effectively perform the role of regulating. Only, under this scheme, the rules will be explicitly and closely tied to the actual risks, since the insurer operates in a competitive environment, and thus cannot profit by imposing arbitrary rules – they would lose business. The tension between the need to keep rates down and the desire to avoid losses would push the insurers towards basing all rates and policies on a rigorous risk analysis. Unlike our current regulatory scheme, which is subject to regulatory capture, corruption and politicization.

          • TheBrett

            While I’m in favor of mandatory liability insurance, I’m more pessimistic than you about the risk of liability keeping companies in line, especially since we’ve had plenty of cases where the liability issue clearly didn’t stop some companies from screwing up. Not to mention that there are some pretty hefty transaction costs involved in pursuing a successful court case against a company’s misconduct, and that’s without the companies in question doing stuff designed to minimize the power of reputational risk to enforce good conduct (such as mandatory arbitration clauses).

  • M Lister

    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.

    As put, this is too vague to argue with very happily, but there are at least some interpretations that seem to me to be clearly false. For example, if “well-being” means _aggregate_ well-being, as in classical utilitarianism, then there can be quite plausible reasons to promote equality over well-being- we can sometimes get higher average well-being that way, and that’s a more plausible goal.

    Even if “well-being” here means average well-being, there are non-crazy reasons why we might promote equality over well-being in certain cases, if we think both are intrinsically valuable. For example, we might think that the proper role to take is to favor well-being up to a certain point, but beyond that point to give additional weight to equality. I’m not at all sure that I’d favor that view myself, but surely it’s a coherent position and not a crazy one. (Mill might have had an idea like this with his discussion of the “steady state economy”, though I find that idea a bit hard to understand.)

    More plausibly yet, I think, we might have a “prioritarian” sort of view, and think that when some people suffer from significant enough material deprivation, this gives us reason to favor more, if not necessarily absolute, equality, even if this would mean decreasing average or aggregate well-being, until a certain threshold of well-being is met. (In practice here I think the trade-offs between well-being and equality in this case are likely to be small and temporary, but perhaps still real.)

    I expect that there are other possible permutations as well, but these three should show that the claim here is at least too strong as put.

    • Chris Freiman

      I should probably have said something like the following: when equality comes at the cost of forgoing a Pareto improvement, institutions should go for the Pareto improvement, all things considered.

      • M Lister

        Unless we build a lot into “all things considered”, that still seems pretty implausible to me. It’s compatible with saying that, in a society where most people suffer from sever deprivation but one person is very rich, we would do better to give one more dollar to the rich person than to bring the poor up to a minimal level, if that lowered the rich person’s well-being by 1 dollar. Now, these extreme cases are of course not too likely, but surely they provide guides. (And, they help show that the Pareto principle is in general too weak to do all that much work.) So, I think you’re going to need a lot more here to make the case close to plausible.

        • Chris Freiman

          I agree with you that the money should go to the poor in this scenario but this isn’t a case of leveling down because equalization benefits someone. A case of leveling down would be something like the following: we can have a distribution of 100 dollars to A and 99 to B or 0 dollars to A and 0 dollars to B. My point was that even if you think there is some reason to prefer the second distribution because it’s equal, we should prefer the first distribution all things considered because it makes some (in this case, everyone) better off and harms none. When we can help some and harm none, we should always do it, even if it comes at the expense of equality. So that’s what I had in mind when invoking Pareto (I could have been clearer).

          • Libertymike

            Support of an egalitarian default principle is usually accompanied by a healthy dose of both envy and a zeal for power.

  • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

    Though I’m sure Chris is aware of this, I’d want to add a brief rejoinder from a noted egalitarian, Larry Temkin (Rutgers).

    Temkin takes on this very objection from Parfit (in fact, he studied under Parfit), and says that it is based on a claim which he calls The Slogan:

    “One situation cannot be worse (or better) than another in any respect if there is no one for whom it is worse (or better) in any respect.”

    Temkin’s paper “Equality, Priority, and the Leveling Down Objection” lays out what he views as reasons to reject The Slogan. Of those, I think the most powerful is a nod toward desert. Namely, if you have two different states of affairs to rank:

    (1) Group A has $100,000 each, but doesn’t deserve anything, Group B has $50,000 each, but that is exactly what they deserve.
    (2) Group A has $0 each, which is exactly what they deserve, Group B has $50,000 each, which is exactly what they deserve.

    Using The Slogan, we can see that (1) is better, because in total, we have more total wealth, and in (2) there is much less wealth, and Group A is actually worse off than in (1). The idea here is that something like proportional justice or proportional desert matters (for income, and for other things related to well-being, material conditions, etc.). Because that matters, we can’t hold a version of The Slogan as it stands, and we basically have to admit that some states of affairs are worse than others even if there is no one for whom they are worse.

    Now, it must be said that we need to bracket any claims that this directly implies we are obligated to make the sighted blind in order to equalize the state of affairs. There are other considerations to take into account, which may outweigh the badness of the situation where some are sighted and some are blind. This is where things get interesting from a policy making standpoint, because then we have to talk about the commensurability of values, and how compensation can occur, etc.

    • Chris Freiman

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. Two quick thoughts. First, I’m not convinced that proportional justice has noninstrumental value, although that position probably puts me at odds with commonsense moral intuitions. But second, even if you grant that proportional justice has some noninstrumental value, it still needs to be shown that this value is greater than the value of well-being, such that leveling down is justified all things considered. That is, it’s not enough to say that the “deserving but poor” world is in _some way_ better than the undeserving but rich world; rather, it must be shown that we should prefer the poor world all things considered. I don’t think many would be willing to go that far.

      • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

        Chris,

        You do take an interesting stand on the (lack of) value of proportional justice. I’d be interested to hear about why, especially given how many egalitarians believe it fits into considerations that walk hand-in-hand with equality.

        I do understand that whatever noninstrumental value there is in proportional justice, its value would have to be greater than the value lost in well-being in a leveling down situation. I think that if one invokes desert as a large (or perhaps sole) component of their theory of justice, then it’s actually going to dissolve the problem posed by leveling down altogether. Let’s assume that person A has 100 units of well-being, while person B has 70, and A only deserves to have 20 more units (or a certain % differential, etc.) than B. It can be argued that the 10 units the A has over and above what she deserves represent units of well-being with negative value overall (or “all things considered”) precisely because A does not deserve those 10 units of well-being. So I think it can be argued that in leveling down, we could still be pareto-optimal with regard to the overall good in society, so long as desert is respected in the distribution.

        Admittedly, there is a robust debate about the extent to which desert factors into a theory of distributive justice, and the feasibility of such an inclusion, but that’s something like what I had in mind.

        • Chris Freiman

          Hi Mike,

          I’m skeptical of proportional desert because I think a viable desert base can’t be saturated with luck, which rules them all out. But even if you do value desert, I’m not sure it provides support for relational egalitarianism. A lot of luck egalitarians want to say something like undeserved (unchosen, etc.) inequalities are unjust. But this view presupposes the justness of equality as the baseline (for instance, you could have a sufficientarian view that says undeserved “insufficiencies” are what’s unjust). Shameless self-promotion: I’ve got a paper called “Analogical Arguments for Egalitarianism” that explains why I don’t buy arguments for an egalitarian baselines.

          Regarding your case of A and B, the key question is whether, all things considered, the right thing to do is for A to destroy her extra 10 units of welfare. Or, to take a case similar to ones offered by Nozick and G.A. Cohen, suppose manna falls into your lap. It creates an undeserved inequality but it doesn’t make anyone else worse off in absolute terms. Should you burn that manna? I wouldn’t think so.

          • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

            Chris,

            I may actually agree with you on the problems with finding a viable desert base that isn’t saturated with luck. I actually tend to think that the distinction between brute and option luck that egalitarians espouse is either illusory, or very thin, and thus does little work in an egalitarian theory (whether it’s pluralistic or not). However, I think what does do work in motivating and spelling out egalitarian theories is precisely the baseline of equality that you deny. I will certainly have to check out your paper to see your arguments against this, since I hold it to be pretty appealing.

            Due to our disagreement on desert, I think it kind of has us talking past one another regarding the A and B thought experiment we’re talking about. Whether it’s manna from heaven adding to the overall pie of wealth, or it’s an existing portion of the wealth, I think that when the 10 units of welfare that A has are not deserved, those 10 units of welfare, while good for A, are not objectively good, because the distribution as a whole is not as good as one where A doesn’t have more than she deserves. Again, as you mention, I’m relying on the existence and potency of some kind of desert base and/or egalitarian baseline.

          • Guest

            I wonder if the intuitions about trading-off aggregate well-being for proportional desert are stronger in the case of retributive justice as opposed to distributive justice.

            When we punish wrongdoing, we remove aggregate well-being when we reduce the well-being of the wrongdoer. We also expend resources in identifying wrongdoers and administering the punishment. Do you think punishment should be optimized for only instrumental, deterrence purposes? Would you reject any non-instrumental value in giving wrongdoers what they deserve?

            I think there is an experimental literature that shows people are willing to give up their own well-being to ensure others are appropriately punished.

            Do you think an intuition that “equal severity of wrongdoing warrants equal severity of punishment” inappropriately presupposes an egalitarian baseline the same way it does if we say, “equal amounts of right-doing warrants equal reward?”

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            That is getting into an area distinct from economics. I think it intuitive that a large amount of people would be happier with a strong set of laws and law enforcement if it meant that few bad people escaped punishment.
            .
            Of course reality is usually quite different from expectations. If punishments do not closely match the people’s expectations then there might be a rise in vigilantism.

          • Theresa Klein

            Retributive justice is partially motivad by a desire to teach, not just proportionality. That’s why people often desire to punish disproportionately, and are willing to hurt themselves to punish others. The goal is to make sure that the perpetrator LEARNS not to do the same thing again, so that the probability of future losses caused by whatever act he commited are reduced.
            In other words, you might be willing to harm yourself in the short term in order to punish an enemy if it means that in the long term the enemy will leave you alone.

          • M Lister

            You’ve got several different views mixed together there. Retributive accounts are not meant to be based on future benefits, such as deterrence (what your last paragraph comes to), and most people think that “moral education” is also a distinct notion from deterrence. I suspect that it’s true that most people have mixed (and probably incoherent) views on punishment, but it’s still often useful to get them worked out clearly. (Retributive views proper normally claim that punishment is warranted if and only if the person deserves it.)

          • Theresa Klein

            I’m coming at this from a cognitive science perspective, not a philosophical one, so that may be the source of the confusion. People’s overt rationale for retributive justice is not necessarily what’s going on subconsciously. People confabulate rationales for why they do something, when they are really acting according to an evolved instinct. IMO, a lot of people’s anger in situations like a dictator game isn’t based on a rational though process, it’s an evolved strategy for getting other people to behave in a way that benefits them.

            Taking the interated prisoner’s dilemma as an example. If you think *rationally* about the PD, you’re going to defect all the time. But a more optimal strategy is “tit-for-tat”. Thus we have evolved insincts that MAKE us play tit-for-tat even though we don’t know that’s what we’re doing. We just get mad and want to retaliate when someone else defects.

            Same thing with retributive justice. People get mad and want revenge because their brain evolved that way, because it is effective at sending negative reinforcement signals to other people.

          • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

            Totally didn’t see this response before, sorry.

            I would agree that intuitions about trade-offs for aggregate well-being are stronger with retributive justice, as opposed to distributive justice. In fact, Temkin’s example in the article I talked about is not strictly distributive in the sense that we normally think of it. However, I think that the reason for this intuition disparity (if I may speculate) has a lot to do with the trajectory of moral philosophy over time. I think that as Utilitarianism, Contractualism (Contractarianism?), and Kantianism have dominated, desert as a factor in moral evaluation seems to have slid to the background. Since those 3 aforementioned theories dominated as political philosophy blossomed after Rawls and Nozick, I see it as a kind of philosophical happenstance.

            I also think that because so much of distributive justice is wrapped up in complex economic conditions and concepts, our thinking can get pretty clouded up. I mean, desert bases like effort, “stuff” produced (productivity), and the value of stuff produced (explained by Marxian labor theory or by appeals to market demand), can make it hard to really clearly see how much stuff people deserve.

            Bottom line: I think that with the right context presented, intuitions about desert in distributive justice can be shown to be pretty strong, to the level of those about retributive justice.

          • Isaiah O’Rear

            I wonder if the intuitions about trading-off aggregate well-being for proportional desert are stronger in the case of retributive justice as opposed to distributive justice.

            When we punish wrongdoing, we remove aggregate well-being when we reduce the well-being of the wrongdoer. We also expend resources in identifying wrongdoers and administering the punishment. Do you think punishment should be optimized for only instrumental, deterrence purposes? Would you reject any non-instrumental value in giving wrongdoers what they deserve?

            I think there is an experimental literature that shows people are willing to give up their own well-being to ensure others are appropriately punished.

          • Chris Freiman

            Isaiah,

            This is a tough one. I don’t have firmly held convictions, but I’m pretty skeptical of desert in both retributive and distributive cases. That said, even if you embrace desert as a noninstrumental value, that leaves open the question of how much weight it should have relative to utility. You might think that there is always some reason to give wrongdoers what they deserve but that you should opt for Pareto improvements, all things considered (that’s what I’m inclined to say about the experiments you mention).

          • Isaiah O’Rear

            Do you think an intuition that “equal severity of wrongdoing warrants equal severity of punishment” inappropriately presupposes an egalitarian baseline the same way it does if we say, “equal amounts of right-doing warrants equal reward?”

          • Theresa Klein

            suppose manna falls into your lap. It creates an undeserved inequality but it doesn’t make anyone else worse off in absolute terms. Should you burn that manna?

            Windfall. You should distribute at least some of the manna to others. See dictator games.

          • Chris Freiman

            Whoops, I should have specified that, for whatever reason, you’re unable to distribute the manna to others (this is the kind of case that Cohen discusses). My view is that even if you think there is something unjust about getting the manna, you shouldn’t burn it when doing some harms someone and benefits no one.

    • Rachel

      Arguments from “desert” suck (and is just one of those bad parts of normative ethics bad philosophers go on about to keep a job). That is to say, the entire field of “desert” is comprised of intuition-pumping (in the bad sense) and little to anything rigorous.

      As Nozick points out, what actually matters is what people are entitled to. The whole “desert” thing is hopelessly ambiguous. The fact is, there I people I think deserve to get their asses beat (e.g. a racist), but they are entitled not to be (i.e. they have a right not to be physically injured, even if they “deserve” to be). So, we already start off on a bad foot.

      In any case, here is a link to Michael Huemer’s pretty rigorou article on non-egalitarianism. In it, of course, he grapples with Temkin: http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/heathwood/6100/Huemer%20-%20Non-Egalitarianism.pdf

      • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

        I am not quite sure that an appeal to entitlement is any more solid than one to desert. Bracketing Nozick’s entitlement theory, the simple concept of entitlement is based on an already existing promise or set of rules, which then must themselves be grounded in something, whether moral or practical. Bringing Nozick back in, his entitlement theory is grounded in the concepts of self-ownership and a Kantian concept of the intrinsic value of the person. Those two concepts have (a) just as rich a history of being debated as desert and (b) are not without their own set of philosophical issues.

        I will have to take a look at your linked Huemer article, but it has to be said that egalitarianism does not need desert, and in fact many egalitarians don’t invoke desert at all, so tossing out desert does little work in tossing out egalitarian arguments as a whole, I merely cited desert as my favorite component of Temkin’s arguments.

        I’d conclude by asking for a bit more in the way of substance in your dismissal of desert. You seem to agree that desert is something people do tend to think applies; it’s a valid concept (hence your use of one deserving to get their ass kicked). It just seems that you think that the structure of a polity overrides concerns for certain obligations that spring from desert. If that’s the case, then it seems that some entitlements may be grounded in laws, which are grounded in desert. But perhaps you have an alternative offering coming from the superior and more coherent arguments of libertarianism, which would be the way to defeat any intuition-pumping (granted that no intuition-pumping can be cited in their favor).

        • Rachel

          I wouldn’t want to write a serious article or anything here, but I do think that given Nozick’s ET is in some sense grounded in the Kantian framework (as you said), and he invokes the second formulation of the categorical imperative, and Kant states that all the formulations are coextensive (in the sense that they really just consist in the first formulation), then we ought to just look at trying to develop interpretations of the first.

          If we can develop a rigorous interpretation of the first (that avoids obvious value judgments like “intrinsic value”, etc.) and what I believe is a proper understanding of the contradiction test, then we have good grounds for a universally applicable framework for ethics. Whereas concepts like desert, even if they are real in the sense in that we have intuitions about so and so people deserve, are in no sense universal (and so I don’t think they’re fit for a political system, which must be constituted by universally applicable rules). So, for instance, value judgments of beauty or goodness are certainly real, but I do not think they are universal. Desert, in that sense, is alongside values like beauty, goodness, etc. but consequently are not universal.

          So the goal, really, is to find a universal grounding for possible moral/political arrangements (doesn’t that sound properly Kantian, hehe!). And I think that can be found somewhat in Kant’s CI, with some ingenuity, of course. (I don’t think many Kantians, or any Kantians really hit the nail on the head.)

          • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

            While I am quite attracted to the seemingly non-buck-passing (can I steal that from Scanlon?) account of value you lay out a plan for in your first paragraph, I don’t see a problem with “obvious value judgments,” as you put it. I especially don’t think that your analogy between judgments of beauty, goodness, and desert either holds, or shows that they are “not universal”. I might just be confused about what you mean here. Do you mean that there’s no consensus in judgment? If that is what you mean, then I’m not sure that Kantianism as an ethical framework (specifically using the first formulation of the CI) is in any better a situation. I mean, just thinking about the logistics of what one’s maxim is and then applying the contradiction test. I’d imagine any initial universality (consensus?) would be lost once you get to that theoretical work.

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      I sincerely don’t see any reason for counting scenario #2 as better. Group A may have the $100k each because one of its members was out walking his dog, and the pooch dug up the money buried by a long-dead person. He did not “deserve” this windfall. But there is still every reason to prefer scenario #1. Perhaps you can think of a counter-example to The Slogan, but I think this one fails.

      • http://mikesturm.org/blog Mike Sturm

        I agree with your assessment of your own example about liberty, but it’s not exactly clear that it illustrates a counterexample against the slogan. After all, couldn’t one interpretation of it be that the situation is bad because it is worse for B? Now, if you were able to show that the situation is not worse because it is worse for B, you would have a counterexample to the slogan.

        The way I see the game in re: the slogan and leveling down is that it’s about firm appeals to objective, non-instrumental value that aren’t cashed out in terms of well-being. I think what Temkin is appealing to is the value of states of affairs that do not have to do with individual or aggregate well-being.

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          Well, I’m not sure, but we may actually agree. I do not include you in this group, but many people and even some philosophers will observe a particular distribution of holdings and without knowing anything further about the history of the holdings that comprise it, declare it unjust because it does not conform to their preferred pattern. From what I have read about the Piketty book, he seems to be guilty of this move.

          I see the leveling down argument as directed against this idea. Without introducing some other morally relevant consideration, you cannot improve a distribution simply by reducing the holdings of some members. If equality has any intrinsic value, this should be possible, but it doesn’t. This is precisely why my example (deliberately) fails to rebut the leveling down argument, i.e. even though B is not worse off from the material perspective, he has lost his autonomy.
          Your example fails because the additional moral value you introduce, desert or its absence, doesn’t make anyone else worse off, as I believe I already demonstrated. Let’s alter your example a bit. Assume that in your first scenario each A has the $100k because each A is just naturally more talented than each B. The As didn’t steal their talents from the Bs, so how are the B’s made worse off by this fact. So, the overall situation cannot be improved by simply reducing the wealth of the As. The leveling down objection holds.

          Thus, egalitarians have a choice, interpret the leveling down argument on an “all things considered” basis, which allows you to beat it in the trivial way that I have, i.e. by including variables other than equality per se, or admit that it holds against claims of injustice based solely on patterned principles of justice.

    • Matthew Tanous

      “The idea here is that something like proportional justice or proportional desert matters ”

      Who decides what someone “deserves”? Because all I see here is envy.

      Further, the justifications as to why “fairness” matters are frankly lacking, even if we have a system that can decide what is “fair” in some rational, unbiased manner. Certainly, if we cannot say that anyone actually is better off because of “fairness”, there is still no sense to it. It is not a reason to reject “The Slogan” at all. Merely absurdity.

  • Jerome Bigge

    A consideration here might be the power of the State to offer some “a better deal” at the expense of everyone else. Often there is some sort of “protectionism” at work where the free market is prohibited from operating. We see this in government granting some a legal monopoly over something desired by others. This allows the favored group to be able to extort a larger payment from those who have to obtain the “favor” of the favored group. This is also why large amounts of money are spent on political campaigns in the hope that electing a “favorite” will result in later being given favored treatment by the legislature. So inequality at least in some cases is due to some being “favored” by government over others.

  • greg byshenk

    Maybe I’m just missing some aspect, but this seems to me to be a terrible argument. Consider the analogue:

    If murder is bad, its disappearance must be in one way a change for the better, however this change occurs. Suppose that it could somehow come to pass that all those who might otherwise be murdered were not, but instead were tortured and endured outrageous suffering for years until they somehow reached their natural lifespan and died a ‘natural’ death. Though this disaster would (at least arguably) be worse for some people, and better for no one, it must be, in one way a change for the better. Since we can plausibly reject this conclusion as monstrous or absurd, we can so reject the premise that murder is bad.

    In this analogue, it seems reasonable (at least to me) to say that, yes, the world without murders -is- ‘better’ with respect to the absence of murder. Of course, I think no one would argue that it is better overall, given the other aspects of the world, but it -is- an improvement — in that one aspect. And if we suppose a world in which no one is murdered, but an equal number of other people were to suffer an afternoon of mild discomfort, then I think that almost everyone would agree that such would be a better world overall — even though some were made “worse off”.

  • StephenMeansMe

    “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.”

    That seems to desperately need a “ceteris paribus.” The natural disaster example is obviously bad because that extra wealth isn’t redistributed but *destroyed*. It’s totally unrelated to a redistributive program.

    • good_in_theory

      Redistribution affects aggregate totals since distribution and total production are internally related, so the natural disaster example isn’t entirely inapt. In any case it’s working as an objection to leveling down, not redistribution (which is not to say the objection works).

  • good_in_theory

    “Jonathan Wolff has offered a case in which levelling down appears to be justified. [36] Suppose you are the mayor of a small town in a southern state in the United States. Your town has one swimming pool and no funds to build another one. The state legislature passes a law on the racial segregation of swimming pools. You are opposed to racial segregation, so you close the town pool. No one is any better off as a result and the white population is worse off, but it was nevertheless the right thing to do. Wolff argues that this is indeed an example of levelling down, and that levelling down may sometimes be reasonable”

    Malcolm Bull, “Levelling Out”

    • adrianratnapala

      I think the right thing for your town to do in this little fantasy is to disobey the state law. Also note how even in your fantasy, the problems are caused by government meddling in the first place.

      • good_in_theory

        “Little fantasy.” Nice rhetoric. it’s called a hypothetical or thought experiment. Perhaps you’re familiar with their use in ethics?

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          Nice snide remark. Perhaps you should learn to construct more persuasive thought experiments, i.e. ones that actually support your claims.

          • good_in_theory

            I neither constructed it nor associated it with a claim.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Nice snide remark by someone who can’t even construct his own hypotheticals or make a claim for them.

    • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

      I am afraid this counterexample misapprehends the nature of the leveling down objection, and thus fails. The objection, as I have seen it deployed, purports to show that equality per se has no moral value, not that equality, plus or minus some other morally significant value, cannot be used to justify a reduction in aggregate welfare, i.e. making the whites worse off in your case. Here you have a case where lower welfare without odious de jure racial discrimination is superior to higher welfare with discrimination. If the whites enjoyed a superior level of welfare because they raped the environment, we might reach the same conclusion. Thus, this example does not show that equality per se has any moral value.

      • good_in_theory

        That merely demonstrates that the levelling down objection is not an objection to egalitarianism, because egalitarianism does not require a non-instrumental valorization of equality.

        • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

          I suggest you start by reading the OP. The phrase “intrinsically valuable” appears in this short discussion four times. You know why? Because that’s what this argument is about. So, of course you can argue that equality is instrumentally valuable (e.g. coupled with notions of diminishing marginal utility); but why you think that this is at all relevant here is mysterious.

          The phrase “material inequality” also appears numerous times. And, so long as we are clear about what this refers to, the leveling down objection is decisive. Thus, if we are discussing sight, it is in no way better to blind some sighted people in the name of equality of vision. Your example equivocates on the use of “material inequality,” using two distinct proxies, i.e. access to the swimming pool for whites and being treated with equal dignity and respect under the law for blacks.

          It is thus hardly surprising, and hardly counts as an objection to the leveling down argument, to observe that you can get different results when you pit these two values against each other. We prefer to see all citizens treated with equal respect, even if this means that some other citizens don’t get to exercise an illicit privilege. But try using your example to rebut the argument that Pikkerty is crazy for wanting to take wealth from the rich solely to enhance equality. Your example does not help you at all in this debate. If you can’t see this, I am afraid nothing more I can say will help you. However, the point is obvious to anyone who doesn’t approach it wearing ideological blinders.

          • michael

            Mark,

            This is a little off topic but I just finished reading an interesting paper by Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw where he advances a “just deserts” argument regarding taxation. He invokes Nozick and others in making his case ” This perspective is, I believe, what Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and other classically liberal writers have in mind. We might call it the Just Deserts Theory.” Mankiw is a libertarian more or less so this might seem all rather obvious but what I found interesting is that Mankiw thinks “just deserts” and classical liberal thinking do not, at the very least, argue against things like progressive taxation and indeed may be quite comfortably compatible with them. Thought of our recent discussion reading it and thought you might enjoy the piece. The Just Deserts section is closer to the end though the more empirically based analysis is worth reading as well. I can’t link to it for some odd reason but it’s called “

          • michael

            oops got cut off there. it’s called “spreading the wealth around” if you type that in with mankiw in front of it or after it you should be able to find it.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the reference.

          • michael

            For sure let me know what you think. The section I mentioned to you is only about a page-page and a half so but I think the arguments are interesting though I’m not sure if you have any purchase for those of us skeptical of utilitarianism.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I will give you my quick reaction if you promise not to bombard me with a hundred questions :) I think Mankiw is a fine economist, but perhaps not a great philosopher. He says, “Let me propose the following principle: People should get what they deserve.” This is true, perhaps, in the sense of what Thomas Sowell called “cosmic justice,” but not in terms of real world justice. And, this is not what Nozick calls for in his entitlement theory.

            The entitlement theory would exonerate holdings that are the product of luck, as well as gifts and bequests, which do not track “desert” (understood as some sort of moral merit). People do not “deserve” their raw talents, but this does not make them collective property.

            Mankiw also says, in favor of progressive taxation, “Next, there is the issue of public goods, such as national defense, police, and the court system. These expenditures have to be funded somehow, and if people are to get what they deserve, these public goods should be paid for by those people who benefit most from them.” But the citizen who pays a 20% tax on $1 million in income does pay more than the citizen who pays 20% tax on an income of $10,000–much more. And, the idea that the rich “benefit more” than this is not argued for.

            Look at it this way. If you ask an insurance company to insure your stuff, they will calculate the premium on a percentage basis, something like 1% of it value, for example. They don’t charge the guy with $1 million worth of stuff 10% of the value, and the guy with $100k worth of stuff 5%. Why shouldn’t taxes work like that, i.e. a flat or proportionate tax. For a really good analysis of this issue, See Kip Hagopian, “The Inequality of the Progressive Income Tax,” http://www.hoover.org/publications/policy-review/article/72291

          • michael

            Yeah it’s been a while since I read ASU but, more recently, I read a piece in an academic journal casting doubt on the centrality of self-ownership to Nozick’s understanding. The argument didn’t strike me as too persuasive in that the authors main point was that the term only appears once or twice but that seems like a thin basis on which to offer such a radical re-interpretation.
            That said, I don’t remember Nozick offering much of an argument against the notion of talents as collective property apart from an appeal to some sense of self-ownership which seems problematic if you just assume self-ownership and, if I’m not mistaken, Nozick did assume by appealing to intuitions though you could say Rawls simply appeals to intuitions though, indeed that all philosophers do.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Actually, I agree with this author, whoever he or she is. I think Nozick’s accepts the fact of self-ownership, but in his view what gives this fact great moral weight is our rational agency. See: http://naturalrightslibertarian.com/2013/03/nozicks-experience-machine-not-broken/

          • michael

            I find the rational agency argument pretty compelling though I wish Nozick had written more about how his conception of animal welfare, if not necessarily animal rights, played into this. I may be misreading him but his defense of animal rights seems rather utilitarian (the example about whether you’d snap your fingers if you knew doing so would cause ten thousand animals suffering or something to that effect). Of course, there’s a million and one things we all wish he had said more about.

            I just saw the bio on your site. As if you were a lawyer. Good lawyer joke: What is the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller. The other is a fish” :) In all seriousness though, I think the transition from law to philosophy is quite a natural one, at least if you’re the type of lawyer who finds the deeper questions of rights and wrong and good and bad at the heart of the legal system to be interesting. You do have to come to terms that you’re in the same profession as John Edwards though :)

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hey, for a lot of us, it was just a way to earn a living if you didn’t have the guts to (say) go to graduate school in philosophy.

          • michael

            Makes sense to me. Were you always interested in philosophy or libertarianism? I know a good number of lawyers but only one considers himself a libertarian. I think we can safely say law schools aren’t exactly filled with Richard Epstein types unfortunately.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Came to this party late. But better late than never. I have personally never met another libertarian lawyer, but I’m sure they are out there somewhere.

          • Sean II

            Said several million recent law school graduates: “Wait…you can make a living by lawyering? For real? How?”

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, by lying, cheating, dissembling, and evicting widows and orphans into the streets in the winter, of course!

          • michael

            sorry should have read “if the have any purchase for those us skeptical of utilitarianism.” man i’m all over the place today. tomorrow’s Friday!

    • Theresa Klein

      We’re talking about two different kinds of inequality here.
      In the case of racial segregation the inequality is mandated under the law. Shutting down the pool restores the *legal* equality of blacks and whites in the town.
      By contrast, in order to reduce economic inequality that results from voluntary behavior in the private market, you actually have to institutionalize inequality under the law according to economic status. You have to treat wealthy people differently than poor people so you can redistribute money from the wealthy to the poor.

  • stevenjohnson2

    In a highly unequal society, the effects are not limited to income and property. The unspoken assumption is, so long as income is sufficient to maintain physical health, it’s all good. But in a highly unequal society, an obviously poor person won’t even get the same treatment from a restaurant as a rich one.

    If a poor man is more likely to be thrown into jail, or left with no choice but to enlist as a mercenary, or can’t pursue expensive training for a vocation, or any of a multitude of other forced choices that diminish his dignity, prattle about the sufficient number of calories in his diet verge on insolence.

    It is true, there are harms to people from inequality as such. The blind man is deprived benefits from a social arrangement that leaves him without the same opportunities, such as surety in getting change. Every single dollar stolen from the blind man should in fact be taken from the thieves! What society in general might find moral to pay to the blind man in other compensation is a different question. What is not in question is that those privileged to see are not harming him by their mere possession of sight.

    The implicit argument in defenses of inequality is that mere possession of income and property, and the power and status and opportunities this inequality
    gives the fortunate, does not come from or in any way diminish the less fortunate. It assumes in short that the highly unequal in some sense deserve the respective lots. I believe that assumption to be more or less ideological. Those who benefit from inequality have every motive to assume what they have they deserve and those who don’t, should be punished. I don’t believe the case has ever been sustained, merely falsified.

    Further, the case for inequality advanced here also justifies monarchy, or a caste system, or apartheid/Occupied Territories/segregation. A government of squires and aristocrats can order all the peasants to attend church to listen to sermons approved by noble bishops, while select courtiers get rich off royal monopolies, yet so long as there was no famine, all is well? Seriously?

    And, lastly, the easy assumption that the lower orders are so much better off is dubious in the extreme. I think it is largely an artifact of cherry picking, shifting goal posts and other such fallacies of informal logic, along with a heaping helping of plain old BS. Just consider the definition of middle class. Decades ago, a middle class husband could afford to support. Today a husband and wife who must both work to earn a “middle class” income are pretended to be equivalent.

    Parfit seems to have imagined that he had a gotcha argument. But the experience of history shows that revolutions, in the short run a painful disaster for pretty much everyone, have indeed been good things in the long run.

    • Theresa Klein

      So in order to prevent poor people from being treated unequally by waiters, you propose to treat rich people unequally under the law?

      • stevenjohnson2

        As I already pointed out, the law treats poor people differently. That’s one of the ways economic inequality arises. The assumption is that economic inequality is somehow the natural order, that inequality is responsible for material well being, The conclusion that there is is a violation of natural right “follows” of course. But that is not an argument about conflict between the equality and humanity. I believe the fallacy is called begging the question, covertly assuming the conclusion.

        • Theresa Klein

          That law itself doesn’t institutionalize different treatment of poor people. Poor people are treated differently because of a failure to apply the law equally, despite a legal principle that it be applied equally.
          I agree that to some extent inequality results from unequal application of the law, and we should try to do better. But the way to do that is to do better at creating uniform laws and enforcing them equally, not to institutionalize unequal treatment of people based on wealth.

          • stevenjohnson2

            I disagree. The law does institutionalize different treatment of poor people. A blatant example is jail in lieu of fines, or vice versa. Another example is laws forbidding solicitation on the streets, while upscale solicitation is treated differently. Poor man’s crack cocaine is treated differently from pricier powder. The police do not police the rich, the police the poor on behalf of the rich. If a sergeant in boot camp says to police the area, they mean, “Pick up the trash.” The police are really no different, they are doing the scut work of picking up the trash, i.e., the poor.

            It is just as futile to whine about equal enforcement of uniform laws, as it is to whine about poor people paying higher interest in a free market. If you defend a system based on economic inequality, you defend a system where the law cannot be applied equally.

            Further, while there is gross inequality, the laws themselves will not be equal, unless you agree with Anatole France that forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges is equality. The state and its rules, the law, are instruments to protect property. Those without property are the threat, not the beneficiaries.

          • Theresa Klein

            Again, to the extent that there are disparities between rich and poor in their treatment under the law, we should correct those.
            But as for property, I strongly disagree. The poor need protection for their property as much if not more than the rich. The rich can always hire protection, while the poor must rely upon the law.
            Consider the case of a working class family that owns a home in the only part of town that they can afford one. Some place that not only has relatively high crime, but also is a target for developers who would like to use eminent domain to acquire it. That couple NEEDS strong property rights law to allow them to build equity in their home.
            Or consider a business owner who is trying to grow his own capital from a small shop that he opens up in high garage. That person NEEDS property rights law to allow him to operate from his home, instead of being forced to pay rent to purchase a commercial space.
            Think about what it takes to *stop* being poor – you need to accumulate assets, you need to be able to put your income into equity instead of rent, and to do that those assets have to be protected. The rich man who can afford to blow a million buck on a yacht needs less protection than the poor man who is trying to build his net worth up from nothing.

          • stevenjohnson2

            In a society that promotes inequality, by definition the poor are manifestly inferior and undeserving of equal protection. Superior privileges are a positive sanction. Those superior privileges include superior police protection. Bad neighborhoods get worse police protection. Provision of less service is the least of the problem. Police often patrol poor areas like soldiers patrolling enemy territory. Police occasionally kill poor people. How often do they kill rich people? The inegalitarian response is of course the poor ones deserved it. That really is the whole story underlying the discussion.

            You can’t wish away such unequal provision in a system that sanctions inequality. Such discriminations are essential to its functioning. In such societies, the privileges accorded the wealthy and the sanctions meted out to the poor are the carrot and stick. There is more to a system of compulsion police and prisons.

            If I recall correctly, eminent domain is that same legal principle that allows a nation’s army to seize property for defense. Clearing land for city walls comes to mind. Even if I recall the instance incorrectly, the principle that a state must be accorded certain powers to achieve its goal still applies. Eminent domain as such is not a violation of property rights but a necessity to defend them. Misuse of eminent domain is just another example of how inequality inevitably expresses itself in the daily operation of a social system based on superior privileges and liberties for some, but not for others.

            The billionaire with a yacht may need less protection but his manifest social superiority will nonetheless award it to him. A homeless person may need more protection but will inevitably be the target of police action, not police protection.

            But the example of accumulating housing equity instead of rent? In a grossly unequal society, land prices are commonly bid up by the wealthy. Property taxes rise. As many services as possible are privatized or financed by regressive taxation, so that the poor pay just as much as the rich to be “protected” by the police. Or even to have their garbage picked up. Housing costs limit employment in urban industry. If people seek cheaper housing outside the city, their transportation costs go up. Happily for the free market society, the gasoline excise tax takes a higher proportion of the poor’s income.

            The natural functioning of the market prevents the poor from accumulating housing. The US situation is of course shifted from the ideal market solution of tenement housing and, basically, home ownership only by those who can really afford it by government interference, notably the mortgage interest subsidy, called a deduction in the tax code. That’s why the abolition of the deduction is nearly as important a reform as abolition of Social Security, Medicare and food stamps, which take money from the deserving and give it to the undeserving. Or at least so some people see it that way. After all, the money lost to productive investment by the diversion to artificially leveling the housing

          • Theresa Klein

            Insane garbage.
            There is no logical necessity that people with unequal wealth receive unequal police protection or special priviledges.

            That might happen, but it is not desirable or inevitable.
            I’m sure you are aware that libertarians are opposed to eminent domain, almost entirely, as a general rule.

          • stevenjohnson2

            I am fully aware of the fatuous libertarian position on eminent domain.

            Logical necessity? You’ve chosen false postulates about what the state does and what the law is, then rant about logical necessity? That really is insane garbage.

          • Theresa Klein

            Insane garbage.
            There is no logical necessity that people with unequal wealth receive unequal police protection or special priviledges.

            That might happen, but it is not desirable or inevitable.
            I’m sure you are aware that libertarians are opposed to eminent domain, almost entirely, as a general rule.

          • Theresa Klein

            The natural functioning of the market prevents the poor from accumulating housing.
            In a free market a poor person could build his own house by hand.
            it is the building code that prevent poor people from accumulating housing, because the building codes have gotten to the point that it is not possible to build a home without hiring a professional contractor. And the contractors are local cartels who won’t build you a house for less than the market price of the house. And they are cartels because the permitting process has been “captured”.

          • stevenjohnson2

            You really favor shanty towns? Allowing tenements will do just the same, as I already said. Libertarianism: The slumlords’ philosophy!

          • Theresa Klein

            The natural functioning of the market prevents the poor from accumulating housing.
            In a free market a poor person could build his own house by hand.
            it is the building code that prevent poor people from accumulating housing, because the building codes have gotten to the point that it is not possible to build a home without hiring a professional contractor. And the contractors are local cartels who won’t build you a house for less than the market price of the house. And they are cartels because the permitting process has been “captured”.

          • good_in_theory

            So I assume you are in favor of progressively increasing income proportionate fines, since you are in favor of treating rich and poor equally under the law?

          • Theresa Klein

            I think that’s an interesting idea worth considering.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Under your own set of assumptions, then, our modern North American society is distinctly NOT GUILTY of inequality. Since we have bent over backwards to offer opportunities to poor people to educate and improve their lot in life.

      • stevenjohnson2

        And if they didn’t, plainly it’s their fault?

        Granted you can draw a logical distinction between equality of circumstances (misleadingly called equality of outcomes) and equality of opportunity. But the sad truth is that there are many logical distinctions that are perfectly useless for empirical judgments. Not being a professional philosopher I am free to value sound arguments over logically valid arguments.

        The idea that “we” have bent over backwards strikes me as way past unsound, into downright nuts. That’s like saying taxes are high because of foreign aid.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          No more nuts than the constant indictment of western society by the left for the opportunities which people have not taken advantage of.

          • stevenjohnson2

            I really can’t tell if this is a typo? Or are you really claiming the “left” has ever indicted “western” society for providing opportunities? Taking a wild guess, is the “opportunity” supposed to be the free market which allows everyone to become as rich as they merit?

            Sorry, that’s just deluxe mixed nuts. And a straw man, too.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            No what I am saying is that the left often, in fact always attacks capitalism, and western culture even though capitalism and western culture have done more than anything else to help lift people out of poverty. You are being obtuse.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Capitalism and western culture took millions of people out of Africa and put them into slavery. Capitalism and western culture killed and dispossessed millions of native Americans.

            A huge proportion of the improvement in the human condition is due to American food crops. Capitalism and western culture had nothing to do with creating them, and weren’t required to spread them.

            I’ve seen claims about recent decreases in poverty. Those statistics about rising income since 2000 count improvements in the People’s Republic of China which doesn’t have a free market in capital. (And I believe the PRC alone is a good chunk of the alleged improvement due to capitalism.) I strongly suspect that you would advocate vociferously for a capitalist, er, “democratic” revolution on the mainland.

            By the way, I don’t know what “western culture” is supposed to be, but when you bandy the term about, it comes across as really creepy and sinister.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Good grief, you are completely indoctrinated aren’t you? Ok, I guess when you have read enough Zinn and Chomsky anything resembling real life seems creepy and sinister.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Never read Zinn, oddly enough.

            And always read Chomsky skeptically, because of the anarchist nonsense.

            Corn, potato, etc. are not “western culture,” and are in fact responsible for a great deal of the human progress falsely attributed to capitalism and western culture.

  • famadeo

    A rather narrow framework in which to reflect. At no point in this article is there any reference to “how’s” and “why’s”. I picture Samuel L Jackson’s character in “Django Unbound”: he is a slave who is happy to be a slave because he has it good. After abolition it’s stands to reason that this individual would have it rough having to start from scratch as a free man. And it goes without saying that his former owner would also be worse-off having no one working for him for free. There’s equality “leveling down” and yet I don’t see it as an objection against it.

    The magic word here is alienation. There’s *one* intrinsic problem with inequality.

  • Stefan Sciaraffa

    Hi Chris. I wanted to point out a nearby equalisandum. I don’t think this is the kind of equalisandum you have in mind when you use the term material inequality, but I think it might be relevant to this discussion.

    Roughly put, the equalisandum is an equal say over the form of the collective efforts in which one participates. The idea is that there is something intrinsically valuable about each having an equal say and something intrinsically disvaluable when there is an unequal say.

    A few qualifications:
    1.) This isn’t to say that the intrinisic value of an equal say is always a dispositive consideration regarding how we should organize our collective efforts.
    2.) I’m not sure exactly how the leveling down objection would apply. This could be elaborated in a number of ways I imagine. I’d need to think about this.
    3.) Conceptually, an equal say is a slippery notion (Does it mean causal influence or something else, perhaps, formal?). This is hard to work out.

    But the core thought is that there is something coherent about this idea of an equal say, there is something intrinsically valuable about each having an equal say, and this is a weighty value.

    Let me try to give this some plausibility with an example.
    Imagine two restaurants, each operated by a complement of adults (no kids). The following is the same: how much money everyone makes and the quality of the food. However, in one restaurant, each has an equal say with respect to the restaurant strategy, who does what, and who earns what. In the other, one person is the boss and instructs everyone else what to do. My intuition is that there is something better about the first restaurant. That there is something wrong about a situation in which grown adults spend half or more of their waking hours having an unequal say in how they conduct their activity. Perhaps, this is because there is something intrinsically valuable about each having an equal say.

    A natural objection would be to say something like this. Wait, there is still something instrumental (fundamentally). Imagine if across restaurants, each team of restaurant workers was equally happy. In response, my thought would be, well, I need to hear more. And here’s the crucial thought. In response to some accounts of why they were equally happy I would want to say, oh, they are deluded. They shouldn’t be happy, and my justification for saying that would be that in that context their happiness does not appropriately reflect the disvalue of having an unequal say. [e.g., they were happy because they believed that they were the natural inferior of the head chef]

    The connection with material inequality is obvious. A large part of the worry about material inequality is that it undercuts the equal say of each, for material wealth can be employed to increase one’s say in the political domain. Equality of material wealth might not be intrinsically valuable (let us assume for the sake of argument), but other equalisanda might be, such as having an equal say over the form of one’s collective efforts. And material inequality might breed inequality with respect to those other kinds of equalisanda.

    Wild and wooly I know. But thanks for the opportunity to think about this. I enjoyed reading yours and Bas’s posts.

    Stefan Sciaraffa

    • Chris Freiman

      Hi Stefan,

      Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment. I agree that an equal say is the right distribution in the restaurant example but I think this is a special case. A “say” seems like a positional good, such that one person’s greater say comes at the cost of diminishing the say of someone else. If this is right, then there are no mutually beneficial departures from equality. So it could be the case that our reason to equalize here is due to a reason not to make people worse off in absolute terms.

      Regarding the connection to material equality, I share your worry about people using their wealth to influence politics. But attempting to equalize wealth for the sake of political equality can backfire because higher tax rates create stronger incentives to capture political power. Here’s an analogy: it’s not worth your while to spend 50 bucks bribing your way out of a speeding ticket when the ticket is for 40 bucks, but it is worth your while to spend that 50 bucks to buy your way out of a 100 dollar ticket. Similarly, when tax rates are high, it becomes more cost-effective to spend your money buying political influence and thus potentially buying your way out of your tax burden.

      • Stefan Sciaraffa

        Thanks for the reply. That helps. Maybe your positional goods point is key. Here’s the way I’d put it then.

        With respect to some positional goods, equal distribution is valuable for its own sake, and say is one of those goods. Or in other words, the collective property of the system–equal distribution with respect to the relevant positional good–is good for its own sake, and the collective property of each having an equal say is good for its own sake.

        I’m not sure if we would disagree at this point. If we would would, maybe the opposing thought would be something like this. Equal distribution is not good for its own sake. Rather, having say is good for its own sake. This is a positional good. The problem with inequality is that some people have less say. What is intrinsically good about equality of say is those persons’ relatively better position. But, by the same token, there would be something intrinsically valuable about giving complete say to one person, for that person has complete say over the collective effort. But that seems false. It is not intrinsically valuable for one adult to have say over what other adults do. So, my claim, then, is that each having an equal say is instrinsically valuable in the sense that it is good for its own sake. And, the fact that each does not have an equal say entails that some are worse off in the sense that they have less say does not undermine this claim about the intrinsic value of an equal say.

        And, perhaps (more ambitiously) the leveling down objection does not apply to such positional goods, for there are no mutually beneficial departures from equality.

        As you rightly note, it is then a further question how other inequalities might undercut each having an equal say and how effective efforts to mitigate any such undercutting effect might be.

        Of course, I’d be keen to hear any response you might have should you feel moved. But I’m also aware that bringing these conversations to a close can be sort of awkward. So, I hereby relieve you of any blog/comment conversational obligation to respond in so far as I have that normative power!

        • Chris Freiman

          Hi Stefan,

          I agree that having total say over the collective effort is not intrinsically valuable. It could certainly be instrumentally valuable, although I’d have virtue ethical concerns about the character of someone who wants to have total say over what other adults do (not to mention consequentialist concerns about power corrupting, etc.) I think, though, that I disagree that equal say is good for its own sake–I’d argue that the positional goods stuff is why equality is the correct distribution of say. If it were possible to have inequalities in say over the restaurant that somehow resulted in everyone having greater say than they would in an equal distribution (in the way that inequalities in wealth can result in everyone having more wealth than they’d have in an equal distribution), I’d be in favor of it. And I second your comment about the awkwardness of finishing online conversations: feel free to reply but don’t feel obligated!

  • ThaomasH

    The question seems to be, can there be an argument for redistribution that goes beyond transferring resources to the worst off people. Is greater equality itself desirable?

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Prof. Freiman:
    Why the comment deletions? Most if not all of them were made to me, and I did not find them in the least offensive.

    • Chris Freiman

      Hi Mark,

      I’m not sure. I haven’t deleted any comments; I don’t know if someone else deleted them or if there was a software malfunction. (I think Jason mentioned unexplained deletions in his latest post.)

      • good_in_theory

        Clearly, the back end of the website has achieved sentience, and under the influence of a surfeit of Jason Brennan posts has developed its own “cartoon libertarian” elimination policy.

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