Continuing the Conversation: Response to Comment Essays

I think I probably should be delighted with the conversation the editors have started on the topic of “when inequality matters” and for identifying me as someone who would be likely to have something to contribute on that topic. I have not been a participant or even a browser in the blogosphere. I contributed once to Left2Right, and enjoyed a few of the postings there. Something about getting dozens of instant replies, and anonymous replies, and replies from people clearly unfamiliar with the academic culture that I’ve come to inhabit, though—it threw me off a bit.

Some of those same things are throwing me off this time, too, as I expected. But I wrote what I wrote for the sake of starting a conversation. I was not writing to wrap anything up in the space of 2500 words, and I was not writing with an academic audience in mind. Perhaps that was a mistake, since I see there were many responses from academics, which have been (so far as I’ve had time to read) unfailingly intelligent and even generous. (Brighouse and Bertram come to mind as an obvious and much-appreciated example. These are people of substance. They honor me by being moved to reply at all.) Overall, I see lots to disagree with, but little to quarrel with. I have followed a few threads, reading replies to replies until the dialogue stops for the time being, and I see that many of the things with which I would disagree have already been disagreed with, pretty much in the way in which I would have voiced disagreement.

Regarding my official commentators, forgive me for saying little, other than to humbly acknowledge the compliment of their attention. Tom Palmer precisely captured my intent (not the first time he has done so) when he says my last sentence is a good place to start in building a theory of justice.

Peter Singer is gracious, and I am glad he would want to extend some parts of my analysis to animals. Just in case some of his remarks seem a bit distant, I should add that he has read an essay I wrote for a volume called Singer Under Fire, which should appear next year. Some of his remarks are more transparently relevant to that paper, so I have posted a copy of that paper on my web page [.doc]. If you’re interested in Singer (or me), please take a look! That’s a sample of how I currently write when I’m writing for academic audiences. Comments welcome.

Jacob Hacker’s response is good, really good. It’s right to the point. No doubt it is exactly what the editors were expecting, and hoping for. It is the sort of view that is very much in the air, and has been for longer than I can remember. He chides me for my level of abstraction, although I’d say both that Hacker at his most abstract and Schmidtz at his most abstract are pretty much at the same level, and likewise with Hacker and Schmidtz at their most concrete. Obviously I don’t mean to be chiding him for that, only for chiding me. (If Hacker is right that I write as if I come from a distant planet, let me just say I come from a 160-acre Saskatchewan farm. I remember when getting a flush toilet was news. And I was at Yale for 6 years, so I’ve had a glimpse of Hacker’s world. Yeah, I might as well have been a Martian there. I don’t deny it. But if he means to suggest I’ve never seen the bottom quintile, he has no idea what I’ve seen.)

I completely agree, as my essay (I hope) made clear, that I don’t like to see economic muscle being translated into political muscle. I don’t like increasing opportunities to prosper (or simply to get one’s way) at the expense of other people. The buying and selling of political power is a daily commonplace everywhere. I realize it is happening. I realize it isn’t going away. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to advocate it. In fact, I wouldn’t advocate it, not even if that is what I had to do to prove to powers-that-be that my heart is in the right place. I’d like to see a world in which there is less power for sale, period. I don’t know how to get there from here.

(Ian Shapiro set up an Ethics, Politics, and Economics program at Yale, while I was there, and his vision was to have it last for about ten years, then quietly go away. He wasn’t trying to create a program that “no damn politician” could abolish, and I appreciated that humility and forward vision. I wish that basically all government programs were set up the same way, to not last beyond the point when we should have had time to think of a better or at least more currently relevant way. A lot of government is about protecting manufacturers of buggy-whips. I am glad to see folks on left and right coming to a consensus on the abhorrence of agricultural subsidies. But actually getting rid of agricultural subsidies, even after agreeing that we must, is a whole different problem.)

To be clear, I am not blaming political inequality on egalitarians, per se, but on those who create political power in the hope that it will end up in the hands of someone other than those who have been most adept at capturing such power so far.

Let me say something else, at the risk of seeming to be in rebuttal mode, which I don’t do much anymore. (As I bet Singer would agree, life is too short for “philosophy to win.” Critics are welcome. Replying for the sake of replying, though, somehow just isn’t very exciting after a while.) What I have in mind is Hacker’s thought that,

To put the point more simply, inequality is less worrisome in societies with high levels of mobility. Yet recent studies suggest that U.S. economic mobility has not risen even as inequality has skyrocketed. In cross-national perspective, in fact, current U.S. levels of mobility are surprisingly unexceptional.

I have a quick reply to this, although I’m not sure it’s right. I’ll toss it out there, anyway, so someone, hopefully including me, will learn something. My thought is that if you take a distribution and stretch it out, so that the absolute gaps between quintiles (or whatever) increases, then you ought to see less mobility, if mobility is measured as propensity to move into different quintiles. If mobility had risen, that would be astounding. If mobility merely “has not risen” but remains middle of the road compared to countries where the distribution is flat by comparison, that in itself is surprising, and wants explanation.

It also seems to me that the percentage growth that Hacker finds at the bottom of the income distribution is a spectacularly good thing in the long run. If there were truly a problem at the top, the problem would be that what is happening there (an economic or political bubble about to burst, say) will some day halt growth at the bottom (and perhaps everywhere else).

I’ll close with a few notes, gleaned from what I intended to be the final draft of my “When Inequality Matters” essay. I didn’t get that final draft back to the editors in time, so they had to go with the earlier draft.

* Rachana Kamtekar (Philosophy, U of Arizona) notes that many situations are almost impossible to see as anything other than zero-sum. If you get the job I coveted, or are admitted to my first choice law school when I was denied, I will see you as having beaten me (no doubt unfairly) in a zero-sum game. I suppose this problem has no solution. Perhaps the best I can do is acknowledge that the zero-sum game I just lost is part of a much larger game that benefits me almost as much as it benefits yo—namely, the game of inducing people to identify the best within them, develop it, and bring it to market in a form that other people will appreciate.

* Suzi Dovi (Political Science, U of Arizona) notes that sometimes there is something intrinsically joyful in people treating each other as equals. Life is simply better when we greet each other with handshakes rather than with bows and curtsies. To salute someone as an equal rather than as a superior is to acknowledge and celebrate one’s own worth at the same time.

* Children often are jealous when comparing their shares to those of siblings: more precisely, when comparing shares doled out by their parents. Why? Because getting a lesser share from their parents signals that they are held in lower esteem. They are not so upset about getting less than their rich neighbor, because so long as no one is deliberately assigning them a smaller share, no one is sending a signal of lesser esteem. Note: as children grow up, we expect them to resent siblings less rather than to resent neighbors more. Resenting siblings less is a sign of maturity. Resenting neighbors more is not. So, to some extent, envy is something we simply need to outgrow, although as Joan MacGregor (Philosophy, Arizona State) notes in conversation, there are things we can do to take the edge off. For example, some schools require students to wear uniforms, thereby taking the edge off the students’ race to outdo each other along the apparel dimension.

* One of the effects of a price mechanism is that some forms of labor (the ability to dunk a basketball) will command a higher price than forms of labor that are in some sense more important (the ability to teach children how to read). The reason is that prices track scarcity, not only real value. This is why diamonds are more expensive than water, not because diamonds are relatively important but because diamonds are relatively rare. That not every commodity commands the same price is an inequality that matters, in some sense, but not in a way that suggests any obvious fix. When there are many suppliers of a commodity, its price will tend to be bid down to the cost of production. When there is only one supplier, the price will tend to be bid up to a buyer’s maximum willingness to pay. We may know that basketball players would supply their services at a far lower price, and that diamond miners would supply their services at a far lower price, and that suppliers of water and educational services would supply their services at a somewhat lower price. What would get us from here to a conclusion that we have a right to prevent would-be buyers from paying market rates for services in great demand? I thank Houston Smit and Michael Gill (philosophers at the U of Arizona) and Chris Griffin (Philosophy, Northern Arizona) for, in different ways, raising this question.

* I want to put in a plug for my colleague Thomas Christiano’s forthcoming book, The Constitution of Equality, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Enough. Enjoy the day.

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.”