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catallaxy in technical exile

Inequality of what?

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Andrew Leigh recently asked his students this question:

"Australian policymakers should focus on reducing poverty, but not worry about inequality". Do you agree or disagree? Give two reasons for your answer.

Like many economists Leigh thinks of inequality almost exclusively in terms of income and wealth. From this perspective, egalitarianism is all about compressing the income distribution and sharing the wealth. But why would anyone turn that into a fundamental moral principle?

At bottom, egalitarianism isn’t about money — it’s about respect and concern. As philosopher Elizabeth Anderson explains, the aim of egalitarianism is to end oppression and build "a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others." The easiest way to understand what this means is to think about what egalitarians have always opposed — inegalitarianism:

Inegalitarianism asserted the justice or necessity of basing social order on a hierarchy of human beings, ranked according to intrinsic worth. Inequality referred not so much to distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons. Those of superior rank were thought entitled to inflict violence on inferiors, to exclude or segregate them from social life, to treat them with contempt, to force them to obey, work without reciprocation, and abandon their own cultures. These are what Iris Young has identified as the faces of oppression: marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism. Such unequal social relations generate, and were thought to justify, inequalities in the distribution of freedoms, resources, and welfare. This is the core of inegalitarian ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, caste, class, and eugenics.

Often the justifications for inequalities of material resources are as damaging as the inequalities themselves. ‘Bad’ Peter Saunders, for example, is desperate for us to believe that inequalities in income reflect differences in moral worth. Those who lose out in the market place and sink to the bottom of the income distribution don’t just suffer from a lack of material goods, they also fear a loss of respect. As Adam Smith wrote, the “creditable day labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt” because the lack of it “would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty which it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct”.

Economists like Leigh unintentionally undermine egalitarianism by focusing exclusively on income distributions. This allows opponents of egalitarianism like Peter Saunders to get away with attacking a straw man.


Written by Admin

April 19, 2006 at 10:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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