What is Equality? (2): Or, Equality of What?

As I mentioned before, when people talk about equality they mean equality of something very specific. The problem is, they hardly ever agree on the specifics. So it’s not uncommon to see two people talking about equality and actually talking about something completely different. And even when they’re talking about the same specific type of equality, they often disagree about its importance, its definition and its (lack of) merits.

Here’s a list of some of the types of equality that are frequently discussed:

  1. equality of respect and/or dignity
  2. equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)
  3. equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life
  4. equality of capabilities
  5. equality of power (political and other power)
  6. equality of rights
  7. equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments.

I’ll skip the first one for now (I may come back to it in a later post) because it’s vague in its policy implications, and it’s those implications I want to focus on here. In fact, what do we want to do when we say that we want to promote one of the remaining 6 types of equality? And what are the likely problems we’ll face? Let’s go over them one by one.

2. Equality of income or wealth (sometimes equality of consumption)

Few people actually want to strive towards complete equality of income, wealth or consumption, for several good reasons.

  • First, people have different consumption needs and hence different income or wealth requirements. And I’m talking about needs, not preferences. People who prefer expensive stuff will have a hard time justifying the inequality of income or wealth that they require to satisfy their tastes. On the other hand, a blind person will have no difficulties making the case for a higher income. Preferences may also be problematic when they aim too low rather than too high. People who are born into deprivation and only see deprivation around them may adjust their preferences and expectations so that they are satisfied with their lives. However, it would be wrong to follow their preferences rather than their real needs.
  • And secondly, equality of income or wealth creates an incentive problem. See here. If people are not rewarded for their efforts, they may decide that their efforts aren’t worth their while, and society as a whole may be worse off as a result.

So equality of income is in fact shorthand for reduced income inequality. As we don’t want this type of equality to collapse into the next one (see number 3 below), let’s assume that we’re not talking about a society in which income inequality means that the people at the wrong side of the inequality are poor – poor in the sense that they lack the basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life. So, instead picture a society in which all prosper but some prosper a lot more than others.

Is that kind of inequality a problem? Many say it isn’t. Why should a university professor care about how much a business tycoon earns? However, income inequality in this sense can be problematic. It can, for instance, shock people’s notions of fairness and justice. If the professor successfully teaches her students about morality, and the business tycoon earns his wealth by polluting the earth, it may seem unjust that the professor should be rewarded less. Merit and desert are powerful ideals, and a society that systematically violates these ideals through its system of rewards may not be the ideal place to live.

Even if the tycoon earns his wealth by way of morally sound activities, there can be a problem of justice: perhaps he started life in an advantaged position compared to the professor, and therefore doesn’t (entirely) earn his rewards. Maybe the professor also wanted to become a tycoon, but her blindness forced her into a different career. (See point 7 below). And even if the starting positions are equal, the result of the tycoon’s wealth may be that he, compared to the professor, has a larger influence on democratic politics. (See point 5 below). This may destroy democracy, or at least result in a highly fragmented and therefore also unstable society.

So we have some good reasons to do something about this type of inequality. However, when we try to reduce – not eliminate – income inequality, we’ll probably reach a point at which redistribution starts to discourage people from being productive (the incentive problem mentioned above). Or not. Perhaps the loss of income they suffer because of redistribution makes them want to be more productive. Higher productivity can be the means to compensate for the loss of income. It’s not clear how strong these two possible effects are.

In any case, many of the problems caused by income inequality don’t need to be solved by way of reductions in income inequality. Unequal political influence generated by unequal wealth can be solved by limiting the influence of wealth on politics, rather than by limiting wealth.

More on income inequality here.

3. Equality of a bundle of basic resources needed for a minimally decent human life

Let’s now drop the assumption that we’re talking about a society in which all prosper, albeit unequally. That’s unrealistic anyway. Even in the richest countries on earth, there are many people who are unable to secure the bundle of basic resources necessary for a decent human life. There’s a theory called sufficientarianism that wants to focus, not on income inequality or relative poverty, but on absolute destitution. It claims, correctly I think, that all have a right to an equal bundle of basic resources and that this is what equality means.

The easiest way to make sure that people possess these basic resources is to give them enough money to buy them. For example, there’s a political movement advocating a guaranteed basic income (an income people receive whether they work or not; Philippe van Parijs is a notable supporter of this policy). But also employment benefits, healthcare benefits etc. aim to provide people with access to the basic resources necessary for a decent life.

The advantage of giving people money is of course that money is fungible: people can use it the way they want. That means it takes into account the fact that different people need different and different amounts of basic goods (take again the case of a blind person). If you give people basic goods directly, rather than the money necessary to buy them, then it becomes difficult to tailor the given goods to the specific and variable needs of individuals. An all-purpose means such as money is clearly better.

However, you’ll still have the problem that some people may need more money than others because they have basic needs that are more expensive, again not because of differences in taste or preferences, but because of different abilities. A blind person does not only need different resources but also more resources in order to lead a minimally decent human life. So we’ll have to factor in capabilities (see point 4 below). Hence, equality of basic resources, outside of the capabilities approach, isn’t enough. If that’s your goal, you won’t do justice to everyone.

An additional difficulty is that the composition of the bundles has to be different from one country to another, and not just from one individual to another. A minimally decent life in one society is more costly than in another one. In a highly industrialized and technological society, it’s more expensive to earn a living than in a society where, in a manner of speaking, you can just pick the fruit from the threes. If you add up all these differences in the content and quantity of the bundles you risk ending up with something very arbitrary. The whole concept of a basic bundle may lose its meaning.

Even if we assume that this type of equality does retain some meaning as a separate type of equality, we’re faced with the same incentive problem as in income equality, depending on how costly the bundle of resources is and how heavily we have to tax to produce it.

A final problem with this type of equality is one of fairness. The guaranteed basic income approach, as well as all other forms of unconditional provision of basic resources, seems to reward the lazy and punish the hard working. It’s reasonable to provide basic resources to people who are poor because of bad luck, lack of talents, bad health etc., but not to those who voluntarily choose not to be productive.

4. Equality of capabilities

So let’s turn to this next type of equality, which can be seen as a fine-tuning of the previous type. Why do we say that people need a bundle of basic goods for a minimally decent life? Because a minimally decent life means something. It means having the capabilities to engage in certain functionings that are part of a minimally decent life. These functionings include “beings and doings” (in the words of Amartya Sen), such as being nourished and in good health, taking part in community life, culture and thinking etc. People’s capabilities to achieve these functionings should be equalized. That doesn’t necessarily require a fixed and equal basic income. On the contrary, because a fixed basic income does not take into account the different levels of incapability across individuals. Some people need no help whatsoever. Others may need a lot. The blind person mentioned a few times already may need more than the average poor person, but perhaps less than a particular person who’s very deep in poverty.

The problem with this type of equality is the precise determination of the list of functionings and capabilities that really matter and that should be equalized. There’s a risk of paternalism, a lack of neutrality and a sectarian bias. Maybe a democratic approach to this determination can solve that problem. And that’s the link to the next type of equality.

5. Equality of power (political and other power).

In a democracy, people have – formally at least – equal political freedom. They all have the right to vote, to voice criticism or support, to campaign and demonstrate, to assemble and associate, and to stand for office. However, a lack in some of the other types of equality mentioned above may reduce the fair value and effectiveness of this democratic equality for a certain number of citizens, e.g. the poor, the blind, etc. As already argued, even prosperous citizens can have unequal power in a society with large income discrepancies (remember the professor and the tycoon).

So, if we want to promote this kind of equality of power, we first need to promote other types of equality. People may need access to basic resources in order to have the time and energy to devote to politics. And some of these resources are directly necessary for political participation (people have to drive to the polling station, read the newspapers etc.). However, equality of power can also be promoted without first promoting other types of equality. We can regulate campaign financing and access to the media and thereby limit the influence of wealth on politics. We don’t necessarily need to reduce wealth inequality to do that (although there may be other reasons to limit wealth inequality, see above). Equality of power, therefore, doesn’t necessarily collapse into other types of equality. It’s a concept that merits a separate existence.

Equality of power isn’t just equality of political power. Slaveholders have power over their slaves, husbands may have (had) power over their wives etc. Again, equality of power in these contexts can be promoted by first promoting other types of equality. If slaves and women are given basic resources then we reduce the cost of exiting the oppressive relationship as well as the power of the counter-party to keep them in that relationship. We may also want to given them equal rights.

However, I see that this post is dragging along and is now way past the saturation level, I guess. So I’ll stop here and just link to some previous posts dealing with the two remaining types of equality:

6. Equality of rights: here
7. Equality of luck or opportunity, i.e. equality of natural and social endowments: here

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