The Causes of Human Rights Violations (19): Ideology

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

That’s the basis of trickle down economics which is a theory about how inequalities ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also the basis of tax schemes such as a flat tax that limit forced redistribution, because the invisible hand will redistribute wealth or make it trickle down automatically.

And, when trickle down is discredited and when it turns out to be difficult to prove that inequality is a universal value, we hear that inequality isn’t as big a problem as it seems, and that this is the land of opportunity where even people who are on the wrong side of inequality can make it through hard work and discipline. Even Obama seems to believe this, as is clear from his inauguration speech. That’s a classic case of the anecdote turned into a “scientific” law. Data show that social mobility isn’t what the American Dream dreamers think it is. Implicit in this story is that existing inequalities are the sole responsibilities of individuals who haven’t made diligent use of the many opportunities this land has generously provided them. Discrimination, injustice, greed and lack of compassion are obscured as causes of inequality.

In reality, inequalities are indeed greater than could possibly be defended rationally, in the words of Niebuhr. The defense based on trickle down economics has failed, as has the defense based on the claim that inequalities are the sole result of individual choices and a lack of response to opportunities (this defense completely rejects effects of discrimination, which seems to be misguided).

However, it’s not because inequalities are greater than they should be that all inequalities are wrong. Some inequalities are unavoidable or even valuable. We do want Einsteins and Picassos. Society should reward merit. We all benefit from the recognition of exceptional individuals. Nietzsche for example rightly protested against the modern habit of cutting everyone down who dares to stick his head up. Equality of outcome is in many respects distasteful. And apart from the valuable inequalities, there are unavoidable inequalities. Some inequalities that are the result of the “lottery of birth” are impossible to correct: some people are born with more talent than others or with talents that are more appreciated in the economic or cultural market; and there will always be people who are born in privileged families.We wouldn’t want to engage in genetic engineering in order to redistribute talent, and neither would we be willing to redistribute children across families (at least not for the purpose of equality of opportunity).

Other aspects of the lottery of birth, however, are more difficult to defend. Why should the good luck of being born in a wealthy family with educated parents guarantee you a better education, better healthcare and better economic prospects? But of course it isn’t just the contingency of your place of birth that determines your opportunities and you future place in society. Some people are pulled down by discrimination or bad luck. We justifiably don’t accept that people’s prospects in life are fully determined by their family, luck or discrimination.

Again, equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome: most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome in most spheres of life. We’re quite happy to accept that some people earn less money, have less vacation time, have lower social status and recognition levels and have more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work etc. What we don’t accept is that those outcomes are predetermined by the family they happen to be born in, by discrimination they suffer or by other instances of bad luck.


One thought on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (19): Ideology

  1. Great post, Dr. Spagnoli. Reinhold Niebuhr’s quote is brilliant, though I don’t share the same admiration for him that President Obama does.

    However, I disagree with you when you say “most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome.” Probably no one argues for complete equality in outcomes, but people have long recognized the problem in large disparities in outcomes.

    Yes, equality in opportunity is quite important; but the outcomes matter too. This is one of the issues that Aristotle addresses in Politics. Even if opportunity is relatively equal, if the outcomes aren’t relatively equal, democracy will face significant challenges. James Madison also recognized this problem, and keenly noted disparities in outcome will “increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” The result is a threat to democracy. The solution, therefore, as it was advocated by Aristotle, is to use state power to ensure “a more equal distribution of” life’s blessings. That’s the essence of democracy.

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