March 2006

The title of a new collection of essays by a set left-leaning luminaries says Inequality Matters. Yes, but which inequalities matter? When do they matter? Why? Is it true that the “growing economic divide in America” has, as the subtitle of Inequality Matters puts it, “poisonous consequences?” If we worry about the wrong inequalities, might the policy medicine sicken the body politic worse than the alleged poison?

In a powerful new work of classical liberal political theory, philosopher David Schmidtz maps out the Elements of Justice: desert, reciprocity, equality, and need. In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Schmidtz draws on his original, lucid, and provocative chapters on equality, identifying the point of equality in the liberal traditional in order to help us recognize the kinds of inequalities we have reason to encourage and the kinds we have reason to deplore. Commentary this month will be provided by another world-class lineup thinkers including: Peter Singer of Princeton and the University of Melbourne, and perhaps the world’s most famous living Anglophone moral philosopher; Tom G. Palmer, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, political theorist, and globetrotting activist for liberty (he will be blogging, as much as is possible, from Azerbaijan); and Jacob Hacker, wunderkind professor of political science at Yale, and a leading specialist in the policy of inequality.

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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.”

Related at Cato

» Justice as Something Else by Anthony de Jasay

» A Message to Redistributionists by P.J. O’Rourke

» Class Struggle? by Alan Reynolds