Pieria: The Ethics of Inequality

New post on Pieria, discussing why inequality could be ethically ‘wrong’:

What is inequality?

Inequality is a situation where certain people have access to things – places, goods, services – which others do not. Historically, inequalities have often been enforced by fiat, such as aristocracies and guilds, or perhaps based on group characteristics, such as apartheid or slavery. In capitalist societies, we typically use property rights to restrict peoples’ access to resources. A poor man who walks into a store and tries to take something without paying will be prevented from doing so by security or the police, while a rich man who pays will not. The same applies to private schools, expensive social clubs or fine works of art. Unless you have a sufficient number of vouchers (money), you are legally and socially restricted from access to the overwhelming majority of resources in society.

Justifying inequality therefore entails arguing why some deserve more of these vouchers, and hence greater access to places, to goods and services, to social opportunities, than others. Defenders of inequality typically rely on one of 3 ethical arguments: just deserts, voluntarism, and grow the pie. I will consider each of these arguments in turn.

As I said on twitter, the article was definitely influenced by Matt Bruenig, but for balance here’s me saying similar things quite a while ago. The point is that contemporary debate often has it backwards: it is asked why exactly we should reduce inequality, as if that is some sort of natural baseline. But if you accept that people are born equal (which most do, even if they don’t like to say it out loud), then the question is why some are more restricted from pieces of the world than others. Defenders of inequality sometimes proceed as if the 3 ethical arguments above override any other concerns.


  1. #1 by J. Edgar Mihelic on July 18, 2014 - 3:46 pm

    We are born free, but are everywhere in chains.

  2. #2 by Anon on July 20, 2014 - 1:12 am

    “But if you accept that people are born equal (which most do, even if they don’t like to say it out loud)”

    Are we not all born unequal? What exactly do you mean by “equal”?

    • #3 by Unlearningecon on July 20, 2014 - 10:40 am

      We are born different, certainly, but not unequal.

      Equality is difficult to define, but I take it to mean people have the same rights (voting, free speech); obey the same laws; have the same social status; and have the same access to resources as others. While absolute material equality may not be desirable, material inequality is easy to measure and as such is relatively easy to judge and reduce.

      • #4 by Anon on July 22, 2014 - 4:02 am

        I agree with you up to the point of social status and access to resources. What do you mean by social status and access to resources? Social status as in what society thinks of me or treats me as? Isn’t everyone free to think of others as they please? or treat them as they wish to treat them provided they do not violate any other of their rights? (I.e. physical assault is a violation of personal space and body) As for entitlement to access to resources, unless you mean zero-cost resources (i.e. the air you breathe, space your body occupies) wouldn’t it require a violation of an individual’s right to own property? Since someone must do some work to get the resources (non-zero cost resources) in the first place. Unless we agree that the right to own property is not a natural right.

      • #5 by Unlearningecon on July 24, 2014 - 6:52 pm

        When I say ‘social status’ I mean people should be treated the same by others regardless of their heritage, race, gender etc. If somebody proves themselves to be an asshole as an individual, then of course you will treat them differently.

        It’s not a violation of an individual’s right to own property; it’s just a regulation of how much property they own. This is a political decision that must be debated, but as I say in the piece I don’t think the ‘earning’ criterion you’re implicitly putting forth necessarily override other ethical concerns.

  3. #6 by Anon on July 25, 2014 - 1:43 am

    Well, ethics is a subjective topic. It depends on your society’s culture. However, by forcing your ethical system down on others you may be invalidating the culture of individuals who come from a society that does not have the same social values as yours, which I think is something you would like to avoid given your claim about ‘social status.’ I’m not saying that people that have more don’t have a moral obligation (In western culture at least) to give or help those that have less. What I’m saying is that no one has a right to force others to behave in a way they do not wish to behave if they are not hurting anyone. Following he opposite logic eventually leads to dictatorial regimes.

    • #7 by Unlearningecon on July 25, 2014 - 8:59 pm

      The idea underlying your post seems to be that there is a baseline set of institutions which do not impose state coercion on anyone, but I’m arguing that any distribution of resources entails restrictions of pieces of the world. When I walk down a high street I have restrictions all around me, unless I have sufficient funds to buy something (and even then I have to obey certain procedures to get my hands on what I want). The question is whether the restrictions are imposed by fiat – it’s not available because it’s property and that’s that – or if they respond to other ethical concerns.

      • #8 by Anon on July 27, 2014 - 7:29 am

        I agree with you that any distribution system entails restrictions but these restrictions (assuming a perfect world were everyone respects natural rights willingly) are not the same as coercion since they arise naturally without enforcement from a centralized source of power (institutions) and therefore is sustainable. Of course this scenario can create a distribution of resources which disregards western ethics but in the age of ever improving processors and the internet more centralization of power is not the only or best solution to address this problem.

  1. Pieria: The Ethics of Inequality | Economics: I...

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