When Inequality Matters

Everyone cares about inequality. Caring about inequality, though, is not enough to make inequality matter. Unless we have the right sorts of reasons to care, equality does not matter, at least not in the way justice matters. So, why care about inequality?

If the question has no simple answer, part of the reason is that equality is multi-dimensional. Suppose Jane Poor earns $10,000 and pays a tax amounting to 10%, while Joe Rich earns $100,000 and pays a tax amounting to 38%. Together they pay $39,000, 95% of which is paid by Joe Rich. If we cut each rate by 1%, Jane saves $100, while Joe saves $1000, which is to say, Joe gets about 90% of the benefit. The pundits belabor this point, without ever mentioning that the way people get more than their share of a tax cut is to be paying more than their share of the tax that got cut. After the cut, Joe still pays $37,000, compared to Jane’s $900. So, does inequality matter? Which one? There remains a 7-fold gap in what they have left after paying? Is that unfair? Should Joe Rich be paying more? The 38-fold gap in what they pay is now a 41-fold gap (even though it has shrunk in dollar terms). Is that unfair? Should Joe Rich be paying less? Closing one gap widens the other.

Of the many dimensions along which people can be unequal, presumably some do not matter. Moreover, not all dimensions can call for amelioration, given that to ameliorate along one dimension is to exacerbate along another. The dimensions that do matter, though, may turn out to matter for the same reason, so even given that inequality is multi-dimensional, the reason to care about it may yet be relatively simple. Here are two possibilities.

1. The dimensions of equality that matter are dimensions where moving in one direction (letting wives have bank accounts, say) is liberating while moving in the other direction is oppressive.

2. The dimensions of equality that matter are dimensions where moving in one direction (toward equality of income, say) fosters prosperity while moving in the other fosters destitution.

My assumption here is that for an inequality to matter, it must make a difference. It must matter whether we have more rather than less, or some rather than none. Simply calling a given inequality ‘unjust’ (some people paying more than others pay in taxes, say, or having more left after paying) is not a reason but a promissory note; we make good on the promise when we offer reasons why that particular inequality matters enough to warrant being called unjust.

Inequality That Matters: Toward Liberation

Suppose we have a certain moral worth, and nothing we could do would ever make us more worthy, or less. In this case, we might turn out to be of equal worth. Now suppose instead that, along some dimensions, our worth can be affected by our choices. In that case, presumably there never will be an instant when we are all equally worthy along those dimensions. Egalitarianism cannot survive inspection as a call for enforcing a static pattern (of income shares, say), but that is not what liberal egalitarianism historically has been. The point of the liberal ideal of political equality is not to stop us from becoming more worthy along dimensions where our worth can be affected by our choices, but to facilitate our becoming more worthy.

Liberal political equality is not premised on the absurd hope that, under ideal conditions, we all turn out to be equally worthy. It presupposes only a traditionally liberal optimism regarding what kind of society results from giving people (all people, so far as we can) a chance to choose worthy ways of life. We do not see people’s various contributions as equally valuable, but that was never the point of equal opportunity, and never could be. Why not? Because we do not see even our own contributions as equally worthy, let alone everyone’s. We’re not indifferent to whether we achieve more rather than less. Some of our efforts have excellent results, some don’t, and we care about the difference. In everyday life, genuine respect (to some extent) tracks how we distinguish ourselves as we develop our unique potentials in unique ways.

Traditional liberals wanted people—all people—to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams. Accordingly, the equal opportunity of liberal tradition put the emphasis on unleashing human potential, not equalizing it.

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.”[3]

Political equality has no such consequence. In the 19th century, when women began to present themselves as having a right to vote, they were presenting themselves not as needy inferiors but as autonomous equals, with a right not to equal shares but to equal treatment. As Gerald Gaus describes the liberal egalitarian tradition, “the fundamental human equality is the absence of any natural ranking of individuals into those who command and those who obey.”[4] Gaus is right. To acknowledge that no one has a right to command merely in virtue of being Caucasian, or being a husband, of being the son of a king, is a fundamental equality, and at the same time a fundamental liberty.

Liberal egalitarianism has a history of being, first and foremost, a concern about status, not stuff. Iris Marion Young calls it a mistake to try to reduce justice to a more specific idea of distributive justice. Anticipating Anderson to a degree, Young says, “instead of focusing on distribution, a conception of justice should begin with the concepts of domination and oppression.”[5] Young sees two problems with the “distributive paradigm.” First, it leads us to focus on allocating material goods. Second, while the paradigm can be “metaphorically extended to nonmaterial social goods” such as power, opportunity, and self-respect, the paradigm represents such goods as though they were static quantities to be allocated rather than evolving properties of ongoing relationships.[6]

So, taking our cue from Young, one way in which liberal equality matters is in helping to repudiate and eliminate such things as Jim Crow laws: gratuitous limitations on our freedom to pursue our dreams in peace. The proper function of our network of evolving relationships is not to keep us in our static place but to empower us to aspire to a better life. Even more fundamentally, the point is to empower us to become as worthy as we can be along dimensions where our worth is affected by the choices we make about what sort of life is worth living.

A final thought about equality as liberation. Brian Barry discusses positional goods, where “what matters is not how much you have but how much you have compared to other people.”[7] Capitalism’s critics once scoffed at the cliché suburban goal of “keeping up with the Joneses,” but Barry laments that, “The cost of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ thus rises in line with the standard of material prosperity.”[8] He says, “Social mobility has thus become a zero-sum game; working class children can rise only if an equal number of middle-class children fall.”[9] But this cannot matter, for it follows tautologically from the fact that income shares necessarily add up to 100%. Barry says “has become” as if he were discussing an empirical development. Not so. What Barry is lamenting is a property of arithmetic rather than of a faulty political system. To see changes that matter, we need to look at actual changes: in real purchasing power of the 20th income percentile, say, or in life expectancy. Between 1900 and 2001, life expectancy for whites rose 63%, from 47.6 to 77.7 years. Life expectancy for blacks rose 119%, from 33.0 to 72.2 years.[10] Moreover, the change is not merely a decline in infant mortality. “Death is on the decline for babies, adults, and older people alike, with AIDS, homicide, cancer, and heart disease all claiming fewer lives.”[11] Undeniably, the persisting difference between 77.7 years and 72.2 years matters. Just as undeniably, it matters relatively little compared to the difference between 33.0 and 72.2. When it comes to life expectancy, keeping up with the Joneses is not what matters. More generally, when it comes to things that matter, keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t.

In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race’s purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society’s purpose. 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.

Inequality That Matters: Toward Prosperity

Here is a truism about the wealth of nations: Zero-sum games do not increase it. Historically, the welfare of the poor always—always—depends on putting people in a position where their best shot at prosperity is to find a way of making other people better off. The key to long-run welfare never has been and never will be a matter of making sure the game’s best players lose. When we insist on creating enough power to beat the best players in zero-sum games, it is just a matter of time before the best players capture the very power we created in the hope of using it against them. We are never so unequal, or so oppressed, as when we give a dictator the power to equalize us. By contrast, the kinds of equality we have reason to care about will be kinds that in some way facilitate society as a positive sum game.

Rawls assumed society can be a cooperative venture for mutual advantage—a positive sum game.[12] 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. Robert Axelrod says he puts students in game situations, instructing them “that it should not matter to them whether they score a little better or a little worse than the other player, so long as they collect as many dollars for themselves as possible. These instructions simply do not work. The students look for a standard of comparison to see if they are doing well or poorly.” Moreover, “people tend to resort to the standard of comparison that they have available—and this standard is often the success of the other player relative to their own success. This standard leads to envy. And envy leads to attempts to rectify any advantage the other player has attained.” Axelrod concludes that, “Asking how well you are doing compared to how well the other player is doing is not a good standard unless your goal is to destroy the other player.”[13] Is Axelrod exaggerating? Perhaps. Yet he has a point. Sometimes we care about inequality because we are envious, but envy is not a good reason to care.

One of the great sources of inequality (more precisely, inequalities of wealth and income) is the division of labor.[14] If we truly were on our own, producing something as mundane as a slice of pizza would be out of the question. Even getting started—acquiring iron ore (with our bare hands) and turning it into an oven in which to bake the dough—would be out of the question. Without division of labor, the Joneses would go nowhere, so keeping up with them would be unavoidable. At the same time, the division of labor makes us many thousands of times more productive than we otherwise would have been.[15] Compared to that, the income inequality that division of labor fosters is inconsequential. In summary, the kind of equality that is liberating is also the kind that historically has been a key to human prosperity—namely, acknowledging people’s right to use their own judgment about how to employ their talents under prevailing circumstances, as free as possible from encumbrances of a race-, sex-, or caste-defined socioeconomic roles.

From the Goodness of Equality to the Rightness of Equalizing

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.

We may think more equality would make the world a better place without thinking each boy claiming a prize as a matter of justice would make the world a better (or fairer) place. A person could wish for more equality while seeing a gap between equality being good and equalization being good, or between equality being good and anyone having a right to equalize. In the real world, to take from one person and give to another does not only alter a distribution. It also alters the degree to which products are controlled by their producers. To redistribute under real-world conditions, we must alienate producers from their products. The alienation of producers from their products was identified as a problem by Karl Marx, and rightly so; it should be seen as a problem from any perspective.

Elizabeth Anderson notes, as many have, that egalitarians “regard the economy as a system of cooperative, joint production” in contrast with “the more familiar image of self-sufficient Robinson Crusoes, producing everything all by themselves until the point of trade” and says we ought to “regard every product of the economy as jointly produced by everyone working together.”[17] The Crusoe image is indeed familiar, but only in writings of liberalism’s communitarian critics. The liberal ideal is free association, not atomic isolation.[18] Further, the actual history of free association is that we do not become hermits but instead freely organize ourselves into “thick” communities. Hutterites, Mennonites, and other groups moved to North America not because liberal society is where they can’t form thick communities but because liberal society is where they can.

Anderson’s point is nonetheless sound. We do not start from scratch. We weave our contribution into an existing tapestry of contributions, and within limits, are seen as owning our contributions, however humble they may be. That is why people contribute, and that in turn is why we have a system of production.

Obviously, there is much to be said for being thankful that we live within this particular “system of cooperative, joint production” and for respecting what makes it work. When we do reflect on the history of any given ongoing enterprise, we feel grateful to Thomas Edison and all those who actually helped to make the enterprise possible. We could of course resist the urge to feel grateful, insisting that a person’s character depends on “fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit”[19] and therefore, at least theoretically, there is a form of respect we can have for people even while giving them no credit for the effort and talent they bring to the table. One problem: this sort of respect is not the kind that brings producers to the table. It is not the kind that makes communities work.

Rawls says inequalities ought to be arranged (to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged).[20] Sometimes, though, justice is about returning a stolen wallet to the person from whom it was stolen. Why return the wallet to that person? Not to restore a previously fair arrangement but to restore the wallet to the person from whom it was stolen. Sometimes, justice is about returning the wallet, not distributing it. The wallet’s history trumps any thoughts about how it might best be distributed.

Similarly, as Robert Nozick observed, we lack a license to distribute mates.[21] That is why we have no right to distribute mates unfairly, and no right to distribute mates fairly either. Mates are not ours to distribute. What about inequalities? Presumably, the same point applies. Unless an inequality (of talent, say) is ours to arrange, theories about what would be fair are moot. A truly foundational theory about how inequalities ought to be arranged would not start by imagining us coming to a bargaining table with a right to distribute what other people have produced. A truly foundational theory would start by acknowledging that there is a prior moral question about which inequalities are ours to arrange.


[1] Elizabeth S. Anderson, “What Is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337, at 288. Anderson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

[2] Anderson, 288.

[3] Anderson, 306.

[4] Gerald F. Gaus, Political Concepts and Political Theories (Boulder: Westview Press 2000) 143. Gaus is Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University, soon to be moving to the University of Arizona.

[5] Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 3. Young is a Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago.

[6] Young, 15-16.

[7] Brian Barry, Why Social Justice Matters (Cambridge: Polity, 2005) 176. Barry is a Professor of Political Philosophy at Columbia University.

[8] Barry, 177.

[9] Barry, 61.

[10] Source: National Center for Health Statistics at the Center for Disease Control.

[11] Source: National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC, as reported by the Associated Press, September 16, 2002. (For up to date figures, try www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/)

[12] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971). Rawls was a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.

[13] This paragraph is a digest of Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984) 110-11. Axelrod is a Professor of Political Science at University of Michigan. For an example of a fairly uncompromising egalitarianism that is opposed to envy-based leveling, see Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Christiano is Professor of Philosophy at University of Arizona.

[14] How does division of labor foster income inequality? Imagine a pin maker contracts with a partner to make pins, providing the partner with materials, training, and perhaps the security that goes with being a salaried employee. Suppose the pinmaker is an egalitarian and thus splits equally the profits that grow out of the relationship. Now suppose the pinmaker contracts with ten similar partners and establishes a similarly egalitarian relationship with each. The consequence is that the pinmaker’s income is ten times the income of the partners with whom he maintains a strictly egalitarian relationship. Perhaps at some point, the pinmaker starts taking less than an equal share. Suppose he gets up to five thousand employees and a company making a net profit of two hundred million per year. Suppose he then begins to take only takes only ten percent of what his relationship with any particular partner is worth, leaving them with ninety. The result is that he makes twenty million while his average partner makes thirty-six thousand.

[15] See Adam Smith’s discussion of a pin factory in the opening chapters of Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981, 1st pub. 1776).

[16] David Miller, Principles of Social Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1999) 48. Miller is a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University.

[17] Anderson 1999, 321.

[18] For a seminal expression of the communitarian complaint, see Taylor 1985.

[19] Rawls, 104.

[20] Rawls, 65.

[21] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). Nozick was a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • “Everyone cares about inequality. Caring about inequality, though, is not enough to make inequality matter,” writes political philosopher David Schmidtz. “Unless we have the right sorts of reasons to care, equality does not matter, at least not in the way justice matters. So, why care about inequality?” Drawing on his illuminating new book, Elements of Justice, Schmidtz lucidly clarifies which inequalities matter, and why, in a world where our fellow citizens are partners in a cooperative system of joint production, not competitors in a race.

Response Essays

  • “When Jeremy Bentham first suggested that the pains and pleasures of an African should count as much as the happiness of an English person,” philosopher Peter Singer writes, “this view had radical implications, for slavery was still legal in the British colonies. Today, the suggestion that the pain of a nonhuman animal might count as much as the pain of a member of our own species is still radical. That is why this sense of equality remains important.”

  • Picking up where David Schmidtz’s lead essay ends, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Tom G. Palmer argues that a common line of reasoning used to justify the authority of the state to rearrange the unequal distribution of wealth is based on a mistake. The kind of equality that matters, Palmer argues, is the “equal right of every person to exercise choice over his or her own person.” The inequalities that emerge from the voluntary interaction of persons exercising that right are not “ours” to reconfigure.

  • In his reply to David Schmidtz’s lead essay, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker agrees that material inequality as such is not our greatest concern. “The problems arise,” Hacker argues, “when resource inequalities translate into substantial, cumulative, and self-reinforcing inequalities of political power.”