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

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (11): Freedom as Capability

Freedom as independence or the absence of interference (especially government interference) is an important concept but it doesn’t cover all useful meanings of the word. Freedom is more than just the (relatively) unhindered ability to do as you like; it’s also the availability of significant and wide ranging choices and of the capabilities to do the things you choose to do. Choices and capabilities may be enhanced by the absence of interference, but also by interference. Someone who’s doesn’t suffer interference by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because her choices and capabilities are limited: maybe she doesn’t have a basic income necessary to make choices and act on these choices. Or maybe she didn’t receive the education necessary to have the capabilities to make informed choices. In those cases, government interference in society by way of poverty reduction and the provision of education may enhance freedom. Take an example that’s less controversial than education or poverty: traffic rules. These rules interfere with what we can do, and yet they vastly increase our choices and opportunities and they allow us to do what we choose (getting somewhere), because they prevent chaos and accidents.

Normally, the point of driving is to get somewhere. The traffic laws enable us to get where we are going much more quickly and safely than we would if each of us had to decide for him- or herself which side of the street to drive on. The traffic laws do not tell us where to go. They leave the choice of destination, and for that matter the decision whether to drive at all, entirely up to us. They simply tell us which side of the road to drive on, that we should stop at various points, and so forth. By taking away our freedom to drive on the left, or to blast through busy intersections, they grant us much more freedom in the form of a greatly enhanced ability to get wherever we want to go quickly and safely.

Anyone who thinks that the traffic laws enhance our freedom should acknowledge that in some cases, including this one, government action can enhance our freedom, even if that action takes the form of restrictions on what we can and cannot do. An enormous number of questions about which (other) forms of government action might enhance our freedom would remain to be answered, but the fact that some government policy involves either a more active government or new restrictions on our action would not, by itself, imply that it diminishes our freedom. Hilary Bok (source)

Traffic rules are a form of government interference that enhances our capabilities. And while they may not be representative of all government rules, we can safely conclude that some constraining rules can also be enabling rules. By limiting certain kinds of behavior, government actions and laws can greatly expand the range of possible behavior. Paradoxically, limiting freedom can mean expanding freedom.

Government can enhance our freedom by helping us to expand our choices and foster our capabilities, and by giving us the opportunity to exercise our capabilities as often – or as little – as we want. It does so especially for those of us who would struggle to foster and use our capabilities by ourselves. Hence, government enhancement of capabilities often means equalization of capabilities. Not in the case of traffic rules because in that case everyone equally depends on government intervention; in the case of education and poverty reduction, however, some will benefit much more than others.

The important thing, according to Martha Nussbaum (who, together with Amartya Sen, has written a lot about the capabilities approach), is not that we exercise all our capabilities all of the time, but that we all have an equal opportunity to exercise our capabilities as much or as little as we choose. People who starve cannot exercise their capabilities, but people who fast could exercise their capabilities but choose not to. Only in the former case is there a task for government. Likewise, something must be done when people in a totalitarian state can’t read the books they want, not when people in a free country decide to be coach potatoes. The power of choice is the central concern, not what is actually chosen. Capabilities are important, not actual functionings.

Read the other posts in this series here.

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (10): Limited Freedom and the Temptation of the Future

It’s hardly controversial to claim that some limits on freedom are necessary in order to protect the freedom of others. Few people consistently argue in favor of an unlimited ability to do as one likes. More controversial is the internalization of this principle, in which it is possible and acceptable that a person’s current freedom is restricted in order to protect that same person’s future freedom.

I think this is only generally accepted when limited to children. A child loses some of its freedom when it is forced to attend school, do homework, learn good manners etc. because this will greatly improve his or her future opportunities and choices. A restriction of current freedom serves to expand future freedom. A child that isn’t forced in this way will find that he or she has fewer choices when grown up, and therefore less freedom.

But is this “less is more” philosophy of freedom, or the principle that one needs to be forced to be free (in the infamous words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), also applicable to adults? Well, it does happen, whether it’s morally legitimate or not. Smoking bans, drug bans, helmet rules etc. are examples. Communism is also an example, although obviously a more extreme one. Citizens of communist states were often “encouraged” to suffer now for a better future and for the “reign of freedom”. There’s also a long tradition of anti-hedonism. A life focused on pleasure, desire and the avoidance of effort is frowned upon because of the damage it can do to the future self. Perhaps less today than in previous ages, but still… In all these examples, people take away other people’s freedom in the name of freedom. Limits on freedom are deemed necessary for the future enlargement of freedom. External discipline and control is put in place of lacking self-discipline and self-control, or external knowledge in place of lacking internal knowledge. If the objects of their coercion complain about it now, then perhaps later in life will they understand and appreciate the reasons why they were forced to do certain things.

This temptation of the future, as we can call it, is in fact an effort to equalize freedom: those who live a hedonistic life or who don’t understand their own long term interests run the risk of diminished freedom in the future. Other people will be tempted by a possible future freedom to try to restrict these people’s current freedom. Doing so, they believe, will give them access to equal freedom compared to those who do understand the demands of future freedom.

The problem here isn’t that the premise is stupid, but that the consequences of this premise can be harmful. Most people would readily agree that only a fully developed individual who doesn’t constantly yield to temptation and who invests effort in his or her life can have a wide spectrum of choice and hence freedom. Someone who forgoes effort is likely to become an uneducated bigot who has the freedom to choose between being a coach potato one minute and a nitwit the next.

But what gives other people the right to force this nitwit to make an effort and try to access a more interesting notion of freedom in the future? Even assuming that the use of force is effective in some objective and verifiable sense (that may be true of compulsory education for children, but not for other types of force directed at adults), are you morally allowed make people free by treating them as infants or idiots dependent on coercion and education? And, if so, is this freedom worth the disrespect that it entails? It’s clear that we’re rapidly turning the corner to some kind of fanatical altruism in which freedom is no longer the ability to do as you want but rather the ability to do as you should want.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ever force people for the sake of their future freedom? I don’t think so. There is room for some types of legal measures that protect obviously self-destructive people against themselves. Prohibition of hard drugs and of the free purchase and use of certain pharmaceuticals, as well as some measures regarding road safety are some examples of limitations that receive widespread approval, accept among hardcore libertarians. (Although most of them also go to the doctor when they are sick and obediently do as the doctor orders. They may say that this is their own free decision and therefore not comparable to legal prohibitions of strictly self-regarding behavior, but is this really their free choice? How many sick libertarians choose not to do what the doctor says?). We just have to be careful that we don’t go beyond a certain minimum (which I agree is difficult to determine) and don’t quietly slip into paternalism and the rule of the technocrats who think they know better how people should lead their lives.

Restrictions of freedom that aim to modify strictly self-regarding behavior must remain the exception for at least three reasons:

  1. It’s very difficult to prove that somebody does not understand his interest in the right way and that there is somebody else who has a better understanding of this interest.
  2. Even if 1 isn’t a problem, how are we going to select these “wiser” persons?
  3. And even if neither 1 nor 2 is a problem, how are we certain that our current restrictions have a positive net impact on future freedom? The future is, after all, hard to predict and past predictions that have been shown to be correct will not necessarily remain correct in the future.

Most of the time, people know very well what is or is not in their interest and how to maximize their future options and freedom by themselves. Democracy would be impossible or undesirable otherwise. Only if people know their own interests can they be given the power to decide for themselves and the power to control whether laws or policies are in their interest. Otherwise, guardianship or a paternalistic form of government would be more appropriate.

No matter how important it is to care and show compassion, we should not allow ourselves to get carried away by it. In general, we should allow people to decide for themselves, to determine their own way of life and their own interests, even if we believe that these people have chosen a wrong, inferior or offensive way of life and harm themselves as a consequence of the way in which they understand their interests (if they harm other people as well, then it is easier to intervene). Of course, we can advise people and try to convince them, but we should be very careful if we want to impose a way of life on people through the use of (legal) force, no matter how reasonable and beneficial this way of life seems to us. What is best for me is not necessarily best for everybody. Most people value the freedom to decide for themselves. The value of this freedom may even outweigh the value or price of any possible outcomes of their decisions.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims toward wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being. John Stuart Mill

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (9): The Freedom of the Tyrant

A popular definition of freedom is “the ability to do what you want”. If you accept the claim that tyrants or dictators are among those most able to do what they want (since the rest of humanity is always to a larger extent bound by laws and the actions of others), then it follows that a tyrant is the archetype of a free person.

Except if you believe – as I do – that freedom is not only – or even primarily – the ability to do what you choose, but also the availability of significant choices. And a choice is significant when you have the ability to expand the options you can choose from and the ability to make an educated choice between expanded and examined options.

Now, how do you widen the available choices, and check if what you at first think you want is really what you want after reflection and consideration of all the available options? Only if all possible options and choices are flooded with the light of publicity. When you see which options are available, when you hear people freely discussing in public the merits of different options and objects of volition, only then can you make an educated choice.

This publicity requires a legal system and legally protected human rights. These rights open up the options, allow other options to appear and show the merits of all options. These rights improve your volition and hence give something more than the mere ability to do what you want. They allow you to take a step back and reflect on what it is that you want.

Only in a public space protected by legal rights, where everybody is equal and where everybody can speak and listen in an equal way, can we examine our options. So we see that freedom needs equality in the sense of the equal participation in public life. If there’s no equal participation, then some possible options and some arguments for or against some options will not appear, and, as a consequence, a free choice isn’t possible.

Now if we return to the case of the tyrant, we can say that he’s not more free than his subjects. A tyrant does not have access to a public space because a public space needs the protection of human rights, something which a tyrant gets out of the way as soon as he can.

The point of Herodotus’s equation of freedom with no-rule was that the ruler himself was not free; by assuming the rule over others, he had deprived himself of those peers in whose company he could have been free. In other words, he had destroyed the political space itself, with the result that there was no freedom extant any longer, either for himself or for those over whom he ruled. Hannah Arendt

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom

It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.

Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights.

There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around”). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.

This may sound naive, but I don’t think it is. There’s already an enormous amount of private charity and remittances are also a very important source of financial aid.