It is safe to say that economic inequality disturbs us. But why? Harvard philosopher T. M. Scanlon provides four reasons we should handle — and fix — the issue.
The great inequality of wealth and income in the world, and inside the USA, is deeply troubling. It appears, even to many people who benefit from this inequality, that something ought to be done to reduce or remove it. However, why should we believe this? What are the strongest reasons for attempting to bring about greater equality of wealth and income?
In his TED Chat on “effective altruism,” Peter Singer advances powerful reasons of the type for voluntary redistribution: a lot of people in the world are poor, and the progress in their own lives that wealthier people can bring about by providing money is enormous compared with the little sacrifice that this would entail.
A justification for reducing inequality through non-voluntary means, for example taxation, should clarify why redistribution of this type isn’t just robbery.
These factors for redistribution are most powerful if the poor are very badly off, as in the instances Singer describes. But there’ll always be some reason of the kind provided that redistributing assets raises the well-being of the poor more than it reduces that of the wealthy. These reasons for removing inequality can also be based on an concept of equality, namely this, as Singer puts it, “every life is just as important.” There’s a great reason to bring about gains in their well-being if we can.
It is important to note, however, that there’s another sense in which these motives aren’t egalitarian: They are, basically, reasons to improve the well-being of the poor instead of objections to inequality, which is to say, objections to the gap between what some have and what others have. The fact that other folks are better off is applicable in Singer’s argument just for the reason Willie Sutton was stated to have given when asked why he robbed banks: “That is where the money is.”
The possibility of creating the poor better off does not appear to be the sole reason for seeking to decrease the world’s rising level of economic inequality. Lots of people in america seem to feel that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it’s worth inquiring into why this may be so. This question is important for 2 reasons. The first is because a justification for redistribution should incorporate some answer to the promises of the wealthy that they’re entitled to keep what they deserve. A justification for reducing inequality through non-voluntary means, for example taxation, should clarify why redistribution of this type isn’t simply robbery, like the actions of Willie Sutton and Robin Hood.
Secondly, if inequality, in itself, is something to be worried about, we will need to clarify why this is so. It’s not difficult to understand why folks want to be better off than they are, particularly if their present condition is extremely bad. But why, besides this, should anyone be worried about the gap between what they have and what others have? Why is not such a concern simply envy? I will mention four reasons for objecting to inequality, and think about the answers they provide to the cost of mere envy as well as the claims of entitlement.
1. Economic inequality can give wealthier individuals an unacceptable amount of control over the lives of others.
If wealth is very unevenly distributed in a society, wealthy individuals often wind up in control of many facets of the lives of poorer citizens: over where and how they could operate, what they can purchase, and generally what their lives will be like. For instance, possession of a public media outlet, like a newspaper or a television station, can give control over how others in the society see themselves and their lifestyles, and how they know their society.
2. Economic inequality can undermine the fairness of political institutions.
If those who hold political offices need to depend on big contributions for their campaigns, they’ll be more responsive to the interests and requirements of wealthy contributors, and people that are not rich won’t be fairly represented.
3. Economic inequality undermines the fairness of the financial system itself.
And people with few resources find it more difficult to access the first smaller measures to larger opportunities, like a loan to begin a business or pay for an advanced level.
In principle, these effects could averted, without reducing economic inequality, through such means as the public financing of political campaigns and making high quality public education accessible to all children (however hard this would be in training).
A fourth type of objection to inequality is much more direct. Again, the notion that this is objectionable isn’t mere envy. It rests, I think, on this thought, my fourth point:
4.Workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that produces national income, have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce.
What constitutes a reasonable share is obviously controversial. You don’t need to accept this specific principle, though, to be able to think that if a market is generating an increasing level of products and services, then all those who take part in generating these benefits — employees in addition to others — should share in the outcome.
Nobody has reason to take a strategy of cooperation that puts their lives under the hands of others.
Peter Singer’s powerful argument for altruistic giving attractions on a single moral relation we could stand into others: the connection of having the ability to benefit them in some significant way. With respect to the connection, to “matter morally” is to be somebody whose welfare there’s reason to increase.
However, the objections to inequality I have recorded rest on another moral relation. It is the relation between people that are participants in a cooperative scheme. Those people who are related to us in this manner matter morally in a additional sense: they’re fellow participants to whom the conditions of our cooperation has to be justifiable.
Nobody has reason to take a strategy of cooperation that puts their lives under the hands of others, that deprives them of meaningful political participation, that deprives their children of the chance to qualify for better jobs, which deprives them of a share in the wealth they help to create.
These aren’t merely objections to inequality and its consequences: they are in exactly the exact same time challenges to the validity of the machine itself. The holdings of the wealthy aren’t legitimate if they’re obtained through competition by which others are excluded, and made possible by laws which are formed by the rich for the benefit of the wealthy. In such ways, economic inequality can undermine the requirements of its validity.
Since Singer shows, the chance of improving the lot of the bad is a strong reason for redistribution. But it is crucial to realize that the case for equality is strong in a different manner.
Credit: T. M. Scanlon is Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University.