Why and How to Care About Inequality

In the wake of rising inequality, Julian Sanchez offers some clarification on its relationship to moral and political goods over at Notes from the Lounge:

For various reasons, inequality seems to be a hot topic of late, and in particular I seem to be seeing a lot of folk taking up the abstract question of whether it’s inequality per se that we ought to be concerned with, or only whether the absolute level of the badly off is sufficiently high. All of which got me wondering: Does anyone really care about (material) equality in itself as an independent moral good? Lots of people profess to, but I want to suggest that if we get a little nitpicky about it, perhaps they don’t really think what they think they think.

First, for clarity’s sake, let’s distinguish three possible views of economic justice. First, there’s what you might call a Threshold View: What matters is that as few people as possible should be below some absolute level of well-being. On this view, it’s a matter of political concern when people lack adequate food or shelter, basic healthcare, education, opportunities for meaningful work, and certain other of what John Rawls would have dubbed “primary goods.” But our obligations here have a cutoff: Once (almost?) everyone has reached this minimum level, it is at least not a matter of political concern—not a question of justice—how much people have. If some people are only a bit above the minimum, while others have very much more, that is neither here nor there as far as public policy goes.

Next you’ve got the view that I suspect most self-described egalitarians actually hold, which (again borrowing from Rawls) we’ll call the Maximin View. Here again, what actually matters is the absolute level of well-being of the badly off. The only difference is that the obligation here has no upper-boundary; there’s no cutoff point past which we’re relieved of a duty to better the lot of those at the bottom of the distribution. Now, this will sometimes look like a concern with inequality per se, but the concern with inequality here is actually epiphenomenal. In other words, on this view, if some people have enormously more wealth or resources than others, the core problem is not that some have more as such. Rather, the disparity is taken as evidence that we could be doing a great deal more to improve the condition of the worst off (through redistribution), and are failing to do so.