Poverty Matters, But That’s Not Inequality

1. I have personally asked Edward Wolff, in a quasi-public setting (the workshop session on his contribution to the 2002 Social Philosophy and Policy volume on differences in wealth and income), whether he had any response to the Boskin report, given that Wolff uses the very measures that Boskin repudiates. Wolff’s response was that he did not think it would be fruitful to debate the fine points of the CPI. I told him we are talking about the difference between positive and negative here, not just decimal places. Wolff literally shrugged his shoulders and said no more.

2. What difference does it make whether “that growth has been dwarfed by growth at the top”? Jacob writes that this is inequality that truly matters. I agree that what he is talking about truly matters—that not everyone has access to health insurance and not everyone has adequate

pension coverage. I would tentatively advocate retrying institutional mechanisms (the friendly societies that I have written about, borrowing extensively from the firsthand research of David Beito and David Green) that were as adequate as the technology and resources of the time


Things are a lot different now, so that’s why I can’t be more than tentatively in favor of this, but we already know that what we have been trying to do since the 1960s has not worked in the way that Lyndon Johnson said it would. It has been about as successful as the Vietnam war. I agree, as I said, that he is talking about things that really matter. I would not agree so readily agree that he is talking about inequality. This sounds to me like poverty, not inequality. I don’t care if more people can afford yachts today. Actually, if this is true, I’m glad. I went shopping yesterday and priced some designer tiles. I discovered that I could not afford them. But just walking around my middle class neighborhood, I see that many of my neighbors evidently can afford them. And I’m glad. Life in a wealthy society is a cornucopia of positive externalities. I realize that a lot of middle class people do not feel the way I do, but most middle class people who started out poor do feel as I do. You kinda have to be born privileged in order to resent those who were born more privileged. Or so I infer from my limited experience.

3. Look at the tone of Jacob’s posts (I could say the same of Singer and Palmer, and several other bloggers I have encountered in this brief foray). Jacob is a class act. I don’t think any thoughtful person will take us to have settled this debate, either way. I count myself a winner only in the sense that I go away with a feeling of having dealt with honorable people. Anyway, thanks Jacob. I hope to meet you down the line, and I wish you all the best in your research, and I thank you for doing your best to make the world a better (whether or not more equal) place.

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.”