Monday, December 7, 2015

Questions about inequality

In the last several decades, inequalities of wealth and income within many countries (especially, though not only, 'developed' countries) have been increasing, even as aggregate income and wealth gaps between countries have been tending to decrease somewhat (though still leaving wide disparities).  Within-country inequality has reached a point where it has now become an issue in, to take one of many possible examples, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Is inequality of income and wealth objectionable because it produces other harms, or at a certain level is there something intrinsically objectionable about extreme inequality, irrespective of any possible consequences?  Why should people care, say, that, given current trends, the top 1 percent of Americans will soon hold more wealth than the bottom 99 percent (as I have seen asserted): is it because the very wealthy exercise disproportionate political power, thus distorting or nullifying democracy, or is there something inherently offensive and objectionable about the disparities?  Similarly, should the extreme disparity between CEO pay and the pay of a median worker be of intrinsic concern?  Or, to cite an example from the previous post on Lagos, is the existence of slums in close physical proximity to wealth objectionable in itself, or is it objectionable only or mainly because the basic material needs of those living in the slums are not being met in an economy that is operating well for the upper layer(s) of the population?

Many are probably familiar, either from first-hand experience or from photos, with the phenomenon of upscale houses or apartment buildings built right up against slums in cities in 'developing' countries; by contrast, in cities in 'developed' countries there tends to be more physical distance between poor neighborhoods and affluent ones.  (ETA: Of course, one can also find that distance in certain cases in the developing world as well.)  Is inequality more morally objectionable when wealth and poverty exist in close physical proximity, or is that simply an aesthetic, for lack of a better word, consideration?  Are poor people injured in some additional way by being physically confronted, as it were, on a daily basis by the existence of people who are enormously better off than they are?

More questions.  Is it "better" to live in an urban slum than in rural poverty, or does it depend on individual preferences?  Is that sort of like asking whether someone would prefer to be executed by injection or by firing squad?  Or does it depend on the particular circumstances of each case?  (I think probably it does.)  The continuing movement of people especially in the developing world from rural to urban areas is well known, but how many move back in the other direction?  (I assume rough figures are available for particular countries, but I'm not going to look for them right now.) 

In sum, I'm not altogether sure of the answers to many of these questions, but they strike me as worth asking, perhaps especially by those who think of themselves as egalitarians. 

ETA/update: See the comment thread for, among other things, a helpful comment by js. on what it means to say that something is "intrinsically" objectionable.


LFC said...

p.s. Fwiw, I don't think a Rawlsian view would nec. hold that there is something intrinsically wrong w extreme inequality; R. wd argue in terms of the consequences of inequality for, e.g., self-respect (which in A Theory of Justice he says is prob. the most important of the primary goods). Rawls explicitly says in TJ that all sane theories of justice (all moral theories, period) take consequences into account in some way. And I wd also; am just wondering whether there is an 'intrinsic' argument to be made in addition.

hank_F_M said...


Some thoughts.

- The top and bottom 1% of any thing is very atypical. A more useful statistic would be the difference between the 2d an 99th percentiles, or maybe the 5th and 96th.

- How much of the wealth of the upper portions represent the overhead to make an economy run at all as opposed to their personal use assets.

- economic development never occurs evenly, an inequality is sometimes a sign of things getting better.

- A problem especially when people live in sight of each other, is it creates jalousies that can greatly complicate solving a problem, create disruptions, or tempt people to violence to promote equality by theft.

- In 2008 the wealth of the upper portions declined, perhaps not as fast as those near the bottom, increasing the difference. "An ebbing tide lowers all boats." But is that useful information is getting the economy going.

I just have a hard time with idea that examining or fighting inequality provides a useful method for fighting poverty. And quite possibly leads to valuable effort wasted where it won't do any good, distracts from things that might do good, and is in some cases harmful.

LFC said...

So you don't see anything inherently or intrinsically wrong with inequality (even extreme). That may be a majority position in the U.S., at least.

I do lean toward the view that ec. inequality is, in some cases, intrinsically objectionable. But that's more in the nature of an intuition, I suppose, than something for which an elaborate argument can be produced. Though I'm sure some have tried.

As for ec. development never occurring evenly, yes. (See e.g. the Kuznets 'curve' -- not sure it's still considered valid.) More on that later, perhaps.

Btw, Crooked Timber is currently running a symposium on Piketty 'Capital in the 21st Century'.

LFC said...

You said:
"I just have a hard time with idea that examining or fighting inequality provides a useful method for fighting poverty."

Let's say that I agree with your statement -- I don't think I actually agree with it, but let's pretend, for the sake of discussion, that I do.

The question then becomes: is there anything wrong with (economic) inequality that would justify reducing or fighting it, even if fighting it is not a useful or effective way to reduce poverty?

There are at least two ways one could give an affirmative answer to this question, I'd suggest. One answer is to say that certain inequalities are unjust because they would not be chosen in a hypothetical social-contract situation; i.e., people in an imagined situation designed to encourage disinterested reflection would not agree to certain kinds of inequalities and those inequalities are therefore not justified or just. That's basically Rawls's answer.

A second answer, which is not necessarily incompatible with Rawls's answer, is to say that certain economic inequalities offend or insult or injure human dignity. This would probably apply most convincingly to really extreme inequalities. It rests on the premise that all humans have an intrinsic dignity simply because they are human, a premise that is shared by both some secular and some religious traditions (well, most major religions, I would think), and secondly on the premise that that dignity can be injured by material conditions of existence.

As a thought experiment along the lines of the second possible answer, suppose, counterfactually, that the Parisian 'mobs' that broke into Versailles in the opening days of the French Revolution were not starving (in fact, they were starving or on the verge of it, but, for these purposes, assume they were more or less surviving because the harvests had not failed so badly and consequently there were not such severe grain shortages in Paris). Would there nonetheless have been something so offensive, so injurious to dignity, in the disparity in living conditions between them and the upper nobility and royal family and its hangers-on as to make a violent reaction, if not necessarily justifiable, at least entirely understandable?

You mention 'jealousies', but I think what extreme inequality more likely, or just as likely, produces psychologically is not jealousy or envy but a sense of affronted dignity, a sense that is sharpened when the inequalities are extreme and those on the lower end of the distribution are struggling to survive.

I consider Donald Trump a prejudiced fool, but the fact that he's a billionaire and I'm not does not register with me as an affront to my dignity. However, if I were surviving on food stamps and living in a very small, crumbling dwelling that I shared with four other people, I might think that Trump's very existence, i.e., that the very existence of billionaires, was an affront to my dignity. And I might want to strip him of his fortune even if doing so was not going to help me out of poverty, not because I was jealous or envious of Trump, but rather because the existence of a billionaire who inherited his money registered as an affront to dignity.

*Someone on another blog made the point a while back that if Trump had taken the fortune he inherited and put in a stock market index fund and done nothing in the way of building fancy buildings and whatnot, just sat back and read Marx or Shakespeare or Marvel comic books for 30 years (or however long), his net worth today would be roughly what it actually is. Not sure if that's true, but it's an interesting suggestion.

LFC said...

edit: end of fifth paragraph should read:
"...that that dignity can be injured by disparities in material conditions of existence."

and correction last paragraph:
"put it in a stock market index fund"

JS said...

I am curious what you mean by "intrinsically". To me, if inequality is bad because it undermines the social bases of self-respect, then it's intrinsically bad. I guess I'm saying that I understand "intrinsically" in away where that's a straightforward implication. (Whereas if one thinks that inequality is bad for a specifically _political_ reason, say that it undermines the democratic voice of the majority, then it's extrinsic.) I think part of the intuition there is that properly moral considerations (and I'd take self-respect to fall under that) belong in the intrinsic category, whereas with more explicitly political consequences, you could imagine fancy counterfactuals where you could have the inequality without the consequences, which makes it an extrinsic reason. (Massive inequality + benevolent overlords guaranteeing democratic voice! It _could_ work! Even though of course it wouldn't.) Moreover, if you exclude the moral consequences (which, again, I'm taking to be something like necessary), I'm not sure what's supposed to fall under the rubric of "intrinsic".

JS said...

I'm not sure I put that very clearly. Basically, to me, "intrinsic" implies 'having to do with conceptually necessary consequences'---i.e. there's no way to think through the existence of the thing (inequality) without what it causes (undermining of self-respect).* Whereas "extrinsic" implies 'contingent even if overwhelmingly likely consequences'. And in my experience, most other conceptions of the intrinsic lead you into la-la land. (Hell, a lot of people think "conceptually necessary consequences" is way deep into la-la land.)

*Well, that's not _quite_ right, but any way of breaking the causal link would itself be morally objectionable. That's the thought. (Sorry, the "intrinsic" category is remarkably difficult.)

LFC said...

Thanks, very helpful. I hadn't really thought through "intrinsically," but I think I was trying to get at something like your "conceptually necessary consequences" or some variant of that. So my first comment in this thread isn't really right: if extreme inequalities undermine the bases of self-respect, or are widely seen as doing so (or would be judged to do so in the original position), that is an 'intrinsic' argument.

The complication, I guess, is if someone asked a sample of poor people whether extreme inequalities undermined their self-respect (or affronted their dignity, to use my phrasing above), and most of them said "no" or "I never think about that," one might have a problem. One wd then have to argue either 'false consciousness' or that the actual responses are irrelevant to the moral judgment...

Rawls adopts a certain account of moral psychology in which self-respect is central, but what if people actually don't think about self-respect in the way he assumes they do (or 'should', or would in the orig. position)? I'm pretty sure in the vast lit. on Rawls this has been chewed over somewhere, but I don't know most of that lit.

LFC said...

p.s. my knowledge of R. comes mostly from the first ed. of TOJ, which was not his last word, though my sense is the later writings tweak/modify rather than repudiate most of the main points, though the emphasis on moral psychology might get reduced (e.g. I don't know how it figures in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, which was put together from lectures iirc.) There's the move in Political Liberalism, which I haven't read, toward pluralistic accommodation of different views of the 'good life' and an 'overlapping consensus' etc., but I'm not sure any of that's relevant here. A while back there was an interesting-looking article in APSR on "Rawls and the Figure of the Most Advantaged" (that's not the exact title), which I might try to look at sometime.

LFC said...

Article is: J.E. Green, "Rawls and the Forgotten Figure of the Most Advantaged: In Defense of Reasonable Envy toward the Superrich," Am Pol Sci Rev, February 2013.

JS said...

Hey LFC — That article seems interesting, I'll try to find a copy. I think Rawls is on good ground re self-respect, but that's not an obvious argument, admittedly. It's a bit late, or I'd try to say more. Maybe tomorrow! (Also, TOJ is the way to go—with Rawls, it's: the eariler the better, as far as I'm concerned!)

JS said...

The complication, I guess, is if someone asked a sample of poor people whether extreme inequalities undermined their self-respect (or affronted their dignity, to use my phrasing above), and most of them said "no" or "I never think about that," one might have a problem. One wd then have to argue either 'false consciousness' or that the actual responses are irrelevant to the moral judgment...

One other quick thing: Re the "I never think about that", why not take that literally? It needn't be false consciousness---it can just be a lack of articulation.

LFC said...

js.-- point taken on the "I never think about that." I have a pdf of the Green article; will link it a bit later today.

LFC said...

Link to the article (pdf):

JS said...

Thanks, LFC! I'll check it out this weekend.

LFC said...

And if you shd ever want to do a guest post about it (or something else), let me know.