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Wilkinson - The Varieties of Equality

Wilkinson - The Varieties of Equality

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Published by Will Wilkinson

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Published by: Will Wilkinson on Aug 01, 2009
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The Varieties of Equality
Will Wilkinson[Appendix to
 Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 640]Economic equality is only one kind of equality and not the most important kind. It isobvious that people differ wildly in their assets and liabilities. Some of us can calculate pi totwenty decimal points unassisted and some of us cannot sign our name. Some of us are paid tohave our photograph taken and some of us are too fat to walk a flight of stairs. Some of us arevirtuosos of multitasking who scarcely need sleep and some of us are paralyzed by unflaggingdepression. Some of us are very rich, while some of us are very poor. And it goes on.
Some or all of these inequalities may be “unfair” at some metaphysical level, but few of 
us think all of them are a matter of justice or that a perfectly benevolent and democratic state
may legitimately intervene to “correct” them. Some of us are lucky in love, but it would be
monstrous to redistribute lovers.
1
 Nevertheless equality
of some kind 
is at the heart of every decent society. The NobelPrize-
winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has written, “every normative theory of 
social arrangement that has at all stood the test of time seems to demand equality of 
something--
something that
is regarded as particularly important in that theory.”
2
 
1
The thought experiment of perfect, politically-enforced equality on all dimensions is famously and brilliantlyperformed by Kurt Vonnegut in his dystopia
n short story “Harrison Bergeron”:
 Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody wasstronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213thAmendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States HandicapperGeneral.See
Welcome to the Monkey House
(New York: Delacorte Press, 1968.)
2
Amartya Sen,
 Inequality Examined 
, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 13.
 
Depending on the theory, that special
something
might be, among other things: coercivepower, political and legal rights, social status, opportunities to realize basic capacities, access toinstitutions and offices, command of material resources, or happiness. However, on no theory of the good society do all these dimensions of inequality happily coincide. More inequality on onedimension is often the price we pay for less on another.
3
 For example, it is impossible to reduce income inequality through government transferpayments without granting a handful of people the awesome power to coercively expropriatewealth, and this introduces large inequalities of political power that, as a matter of fact, almostalways lead to some level of corruption and abuse.
4
As the philosopher Roderick Long glosses
John Locke’s seminal liberal conception of natural political equality, “
equality involves notmerely equality
before
legislators, judges, and police, but, far more crucially, equality
with
 legislators, judges, and police.
5
 Even if we are satisfied that such inequalities in power are made legitimate by fairdemocratic institutions that reliably safeguard us against abuse, there is simply no avoidinginequality whack-a-mole. When we raise taxes on the wealthy to finance spending on the welfareof the poor, we increase inequality in tax rates; a small segment of the population will bear anincreasingly unequal share of the tax burden. Reduce tax inequality and income inequality goesup.
“Closing one gap widens the other,” political philosopher David Schmidtz
notes in a lucid
3
See David
Schmidtz, “When Inequality Matters,”
Cato Unbound 
.See also “Equal Respect and Equal Shares,”
SocialPhilosophy and Policy
19 (2002).
4
 
Roderick T. Long, “
Equality: The Unknown Ideal
.
 
Lecture delivered at the Philosophy of Liberty Conference atthe Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, Saturday, September 29, 2001. Online at
 
.See also, Roderick T. Long, “Liberty: The Other Equality,”
The Freeman
(October2005): 17-19.
5
 
Locke says, “
there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuouslyborn to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongstanother, without subordination or subjection
.”
John Locke,
Second Treatise of Government 
II. 4,www.lonang.com/exlibris/locke/loc-202.htm
 
discussion of this issue.
6
Recognizing this fact forces us to square up to the choice betweendimensions of equality and to ask explicitly: Why does
this
one merit the greatest concern? Areinequalities in political power or authority more or less worrying than inequalities in economicholdings? Are highly unequal tax rates really fairer than highly unequal incomes? Differentliberal theories of the good society place the emphasis on different dimensions of equality.The version of liberalism most notably and durably embodied in the United StatesDeclaration of Independence and Constitution is, at its core, a doctrine of freedom and equality,working in tandem. Republican or democratic equality reflects our natural equality as persons,which is the foundation of our rights
. To say that “all men are created equal” is to say that no
man has a right to rule over another simply in virtue of birth, blood, or prior privilege.
7
This isthe antithesis of monarchy or aristocracy. The only legitimate ruling power is that which free andequal individuals consent to be governed by. It is in this anti-aristocratic, republican sense --natural equality of authority -- that the United States of America was the first explicitlyegalitarian, and liberal, nation.Under a system of hereditary class stratification, economic inequality is a predictableconsequence of predation by political elites and the systematic exclusion of the lower classesfrom the most rewarding economic opportunities.
8
It is not surprising, then, that those living insocieties with a history of exclusive hierarchy will tend to suspect that large differences in wealthreflect an entrenched structure of unfair inequality of opportunity. We will return below to theeffect of long-standing historic institutions on contemporary public opinion to help explain why
6
 
Schmidtz, “When Inequality Matters.”
 
7
 
The first draft of the Declaration of Independence has equality even more at the forefront, “
We hold these truths tobe sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they deriverights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is clear here that our rights were conceived as
 following from
equal creation, rather than the fact of equalitystanding next to the fact of rights as an independent posit.
8
 
Edward Glaeser, Jose Scheinkman, and Andrei Shleifer, “The Injustice of Inequality,”
 Journal of Monetary Economics
50, no. 1 (January 2003).

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