Income Inequality (16b): Its Moral Significance

Will Wilkinson’s recent paper on income inequality argues that it’s an overrated problem (see also here). Before I deal with his arguments in detail, a quick reminder of my personal views on income inequality. From the point of view of human rights (which is my default starting point), the most urgent problem is not necessarily the unequal distribution of wealth or income, but the insufficient wealth and income of the poor in a given population. The urgent problem is absolute poverty, rather than relative poverty. Or, in other words, what we have to tackle first is some people’s inability to gather sufficient resources necessary to survive in a decent way, not the fact that some people have more resources than others. The human rights of people in a very poor but highly egalitarian society can be violated more extensively than the human rights of the relatively poor in a society that is very rich on average but highly inegalitarian. Eliminating or reducing income inequality – or “killing the rich” (metaphorically) as in the image above – doesn’t necessarily help the poor.

However, inequality can be a problem. The absence of poverty or the availability of sufficient resources for a decent human life is a human right, but it isn’t the only human right (some would even say that it isn’t a right at all, but I disagree, together with the drafters of the Universal Declaration). Human rights also include political human rights, and these political human rights usually mean the right to democratic participation in government and legislation. Income inequality makes these political rights highly problematic. Democracy is based on the equal influence of every citizen, but income inequality, by definition, gives the wealthier citizens more influence in politics.

In addition, income inequality may also lead to social fragmentation, with negative consequences for the cohesiveness of a society. We see that highly inegalitarian societies, such as the U.S., are also societies with relatively low levels of social mobility. One could argue that income inequality isn’t much of a problem when everyone has the same chance to be on the good side of the inequality. But when it is combined with social rigidity and stratification, it undermines meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which in turn enhances social fragmentation.

Finally, people in more egalitarian societies tend to be healthier, to live longer and to be happier (as Wilkinson should know).

These are serious issues from the point of view of human rights. If reducing income inequality (for example through progressive taxation, public spending – on welfare, education, healthcare etc. –  and regulation of political funding and lobbying) can go some way towards a solution, we should consider it.

One last point: all these issues are based on the assumption that income inequality is the outcome of just processes. In other words, we assume that people’s incomes are the result of their own desert and effort. If, on the other hand, we assume – more correctly in my view – that income and wealth distributions are affected by unjust processes (such as colonialism, slavery, discrimination, inheritance and a lack of social mobility etc.) than we have additional reasons to do something about income inequality. And these reasons have nothing to do with the negative consequences of inequality. They are, instead, related to its origins.

(If you want to know more about my views on income inequality, before I tackle Wilkinson’s views, you can read this old post).

Wilkinson claims that

income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Those are real problems indeed, and even more urgent problems, as I’ve stated above. But income inequality is also a real problem, and I fail to see how one problem is necessarily a distraction from another problem. Human beings are perfectly capable of tackling several problems at the same time.

He also states that

there is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.

That’s not true, as you can read here and here. Income inequality obviously doesn’t necessarily “destroy” democracy or replace it with “plutocracy”, but it significantly reduces its meaning, on both sides of the income gap: wealthy people use their wealth, their higher education, their networks etc. to gain influence, and poor people tend to participate less and thereby lose influence. While it’s true that wealthy people can use their political influence for the benefit of their poor fellow-citizens, it’s still a fact that many don’t. If we cherish democracy, we should implement policies that limit the risk of selfish interventions by disproportionately influential individuals or groups, as well as policies that encourage participation of relatively less influential individuals and groups. It’s not sufficient, as Wilkinson does, to point to the fact that many wealthy people voted for Obama, knowing that he would raise their taxes.

Wilkinson also believes that the level of American income inequality was not caused by exploitative, institutional mechanisms. Given the historical inheritance of slavery and discrimination, I think this opinion is false. This inheritance, combined with astonishingly high levels of correlation between parental income and the income of children, does suggest that there are institutional mechanisms which perpetuate income inequality. While it’s wrong to claim that the inheritance of racism and slavery is to blame for the poverty of African-Americans living today, it’s very likely that it has some effect.

Few people argue for a completely egalitarian society. I certainly don’t. Some inequalities are perfectly just, and probably necessary from the point of view of economic efficiency. But there are many who argue for the opposite: don’t do anything about inequality. While I don’t believe Wilkinson is one of them, his statement that “income inequality is a dangerous distraction” encourages those who believe that we shouldn’t care about inequality.

What is Democracy? (26): Democracy or Experts?

The proper judge of the expert is not another expert, but the user: The warrior and not the blacksmith for the sword, the horseman and not the saddler for the saddle. And evidently, for all public (common) affairs, the user, and thus the best judge, is the polis. Cornelius Castoriadis

The best method of choice is to choose experts by their success. The best experts to choose are the ones whose bridges have not fallen down. In this the more views about what is actually happening, or has happened, the better. Dictators or oligarchies are more insulated from what is going on than the people at large. To find out whether the people have actually been fed, the best people to consult are the people themselves. Ross Harrison

A frequently heard argument against democracy is that the job of governing requires expert knowledge. The government is better left in the hands of experts. The “populace” has other things to do than investing in the knowledge necessary for governing. I’ve mentioned this argument in my post on Plato.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious objection against this argument – that many acts of government have nothing to do with knowledge but are rather a matter of judgment, values, personality, character, conviction, courage etc. All things in which no one is an “expert”.

Let us grant that certain parts of the act of governing are better left to experts with the appropriate knowledge, for example the management of the road and bridge infrastructure as in the quote above. But even though the people sometimes need individuals with expert knowledge in places of government, it is up to the people to choose and judge the experts and the result of the experts’ work, because this kind of judgment requires as much information on what is happening as possible.

It is wrong to say that you always need an expert to judge an expert. The role of experts must always be integrated in and subject to a democratic system. Experts should only play a supporting role. They use their knowledge and truth to assist the people, often at the level of means and not at the level of goals.

First, there has to be a decision on whether or not to build a bridge and only then can the experts come into play. The decision to build a bridge is not only based on facts, mathematics, if-then calculations etc. Values and interest play an important part (for example, ecological values). It is up to the people to decide on their goals, and when values come into play there often is no knowledge available to do this. They decide if they need a bridge and they determine which values will be served by having a bridge and which other values can possibly be harmed by the bridge. These value-questions will rarely be the consequence of knowledge and truth. They cannot, therefore, be left to experts.

In politics, values are more important than truth or knowledge. I do not think that there can ever be a certain answer to the question whether a particular bridge ought to be built or not, whether dishonest asylum seekers ought to be expelled or not, whether education has to continue until the age of 18 or not, etc. This kind of decision will be based on discussion, debate and arguments, not on truth. Once there is a decision on these questions, we can leave the technical aspects to the experts: how do we expel dishonest asylum seekers, which techniques do we use, what is the planning etc. It may be possible to find elements of truth and knowledge at this level, in which case we may need experts. But it can happen that these techniques again give rise to value questions (for example, the use of stock cars for the expulsion of dishonest asylum seekers).