on inequality

Rev pointed me at this essay by David Schmidtz, saying that he thought it was the sort of thing that would annoy me (he was right), and that Reason’s Hit&Run had been talking about it a bit. I wanted to get my thoughts out here before I read the Reason commentary on it. (UPDATE: Julian Sanchez’s response is here, and I found it interesting that Julian references a lecture by Amartya Sen, whose book Poverty and Famines has been on my to-read list for quite a while now.)

In this essay, Schmidtz sets out to define when inequality “matters”. The first thing I found troubling about this essay is that he never clearly defines in a meaningful way what “matters” even means. The closes we come is “My assumption here is that for an inequality to matter, it must make a difference.” (Make a difference in what?) He then sets out to define “Inquality That Matters: Toward Liberation” – the premise, never justified, being that equality that liberates is the only equality that “matters”. In his essay, this liberation is as opposed to egalitarianism that aims to redistribute material goods, and not just liberate “opportunity”.

He starts off by quoting Elizabeth Anderson:

Elizabeth Anderson rightly says, “Those on the left have no less reason than conservatives and libertarians to be disturbed by recent trends in academic egalitarian thought.”1 To Anderson, “The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression.”2 Anderson suggests that when redistribution’s purpose is to make up for bad luck, including the misfortune of being less capable than others, the result in practice is disrespect. “People lay claim to the resources of egalitarian redistribution in virtue of their inferiority to others, not in virtue of their equality to others.”

Here we have what is, basically, the Same Old Crap that you get a lot from faux-libertarian Republicans: if you dare to help someone, it’s only because you think they’re inferior, which is disrespectful and condescending. If you think they need help, clearly you think you are better than them. This train of thought ignores the possibility of genuine compassion (a rather bleak existence), or genuine structural forces that are responsible for a person’s misfortune, rather than being “less capable”. (If you ask me, what’s disrespectful is assuming that the only thing leading to misfortune could be being intrinsically “less capable” in some way, but I digress.) He then proceeds to assert that focusing on distribution “leads us to focus on allocating material goods” – the alternative being liberation from oppression. Liberation from oppression is all well and good, but it doesn’t feed someone that’s hungry in the meantime. There’s a schism between the concept of egalitarianism in the United States: the idea of guaranteeing equality of opportunity versus guaranteeing equality of outcome. Sadly, though, this is a false dichotomy. Equality of opportunity is nice – equality of outcome is even nicer. We should certainly free people from the constraints of structural oppression, but while that process is ongoing (as it ever will be), redistribution of material goods is a useful aim. The response to gross inequality in the world by this sort of vulgar libertarian seems to be a casual shrug and dismissal of “well, we don’t guarantee equality of outcome, only equality of opportunity. better luck next time!” I fail to see how recognizing and rectifying a structural inequality (liberation) is important, while helping people afflicted by structural inequality in the meantime “doesn’t matter”.

The next part of the essay gets even weirder. He takes this detour of assuming that egalitarians assume a zero-sum game, and that rectifying inequality necessarily means “taking” material goods from the “winners”. This is a straw-man, and it’s important to note it as such, because his entire argument seems to hinge on it. His usage of “winners” and “losers” here is interesting, because although he asserts that the assumption of a zero-sum game is a crucial failure of egalitarianism (itself a straw-man), the rest of his argument reads in terms of “winners” and “losers”. If the assumption of a zero-sum game is a fallacy, why did he keep using those words? Very confusing.

Later, he provides another slightly rambling example for justification of why inequality “doesn’t matter”:

We form societies with the Joneses so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.

This of course is something we’ve heard before: “a rising tide lifts all boats” – an expression so cliched and mocked at this point that of course Schmidtz couldn’t use it. He had to make up a new fable. But its moral is the same: We shouldn’t worry about “winners” and “losers”, because it’s not a zero-sum game: if society in general is progressing at a healthy pace, you shouldn’t fret about gross inequality, because at least the lower class is better off than it was 100 years ago. This is small comfort to those at the “losing” end of vast relative disparity of wealth, and it’s hardly a justification.

The rest of his essay makes similar attempts at logical slight of hand:

Society is not, or at least need not, be like poker in that respect. Poker is zero-sum. The only way to win is at the expense of other players. Some of us want to see—to define—profit as coming at other people’s expense, despite the ubiquity of consensual transactions where both parties go away having gotten what they came for.

This sort of moral justification for profit is given to serve also as a moral justification for wealth, but profit and wealth are not the same things, and this is a rather amateurish argument. Once again, we’re presented with the argument for wealth that erects and knocks down a straw-man: by opposing wealth and inequity, you’re also opposing profit and progress. But profit is not wealth.

He closes with a whimper:

David Miller notices a difference between saying equality is good and saying equality is required by justice.[16] If our school organizes a track meet, and one boy wins every race, we accept that justice was done. Prizes were fairly won. Still, we are disappointed. It would have been a better (at least more enjoyable) day if the prizes had been spread around. Yet, Miller observes, we need not dress up our disappointment. Not everything that matters is a matter of justice.

Just because I think it’s funny, I am going to include here my notes that I wrote in the margin while I was reading this essay in the bathtub, on my third vodka tonic: “Eating is not the same thing as “winning” a fucking prize, dickface”. It’s funnier if you realize I write manuscript at a 5th grade level. Uh, anyways.

For him to reduce egalitarianism to being merely an errand to guarantee that everyone “wins” a prize demonstrates his true, rather puerile, contempt for egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is not complicated. It’s not about jealous fury and making sure everyone “wins” – it’s about compassion and minimizing inequity. Schmidtz seems so wrapped up in his tortuously confused conception of zero-sum games that he can’t see that.