Refuting the arguments against equality.

The arguments against egalitarian wage systems tend to be pretty vague, and there is little formal literature on the subject, with one exception which I will discuss. In general, the popular arguments people use against egalitarianism tend to fall into three categories:

1. The problem of innovation in an egalitarian society. According to this argument, people would have no incentive to innovate in an egalitarian society because they would not be rewarded adequately. As I have pointed out before, people actually get very little rewards for innovation in our capitalist systems, and there are easy ways to set up reward systems for innovation that follow egalitarian principles.

2. What I would like to call the Harrisson Bergeron Objection, as it has been used so many times that it deserves its own name. For those of you who have not read the Harrisson Bergeron story, it depicts a world where everyone is laden with artificial handicaps (such as weights around their ankles, fake scars, or noises blasted into their ears) so they would all be made equal.

It is a gruesome story which cannot fail to make an impact on the reader, which is why it is used so often to argue against equality, the argument generally being that an egalitarian economics is a slippery slope to the kind of equality portrayed in Harrisson Bergeron.

What’s missing in this argument is any sensible reason why total and complete equality logically follows from economic equality. The premise of economic equality is that every job is necessary for every other job, and that any work anyone performs is predicated on the existence of a gigantic mass of knowledge and materials acquired by others. There is no clear relation between this and making everyone equally beautiful or strong.

3. The idea that equality leads to poverty is another commonly used argument, usually peppered with explicit or implicit references to the failure of USSR-style Marxism. It is not exactly clear how a system which is responsible for forced deportations and forced famines can be considered egalitarian in any sense of the word.

Furthermore, given the fact that, in a socialist system, it would only take a few hours of work per week for a person to generate or afford all the necessities of life, I don’t think poverty is really an issue. The main criticism people have against capitalism is precisely that it misallocates resources away from those who need them and puts them in the hands of those who don’t need them and don’t deserve them. Market-based rationing and government violence/laws, as well as their synergy, are the greatest causes of poverty.

As I said, there is one formal argument presented in the literature. According to Social Class and Stratification, a compendium of essays on the debates surrounding class, race and gender issues, the “most systematic treatment” of the premise that inequality is “inevitable and positively functional” comes from an article called “Some Principles of Stratification,” by Davis and Moore, which was written in 1945. This article argues that:

Social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons.

A bold claim indeed. It is backed by an argument structured in the following manner (summation in Social Class and Stratification):

1. Certain position in any society are functionally more important than others and require special skills for their performance.

2. Only a limited number of individuals in any society have the talents
which can be trained into the skills appropriate to these positions.

3. The conversion of talents into skills involves a training period
during which sacrifices of one kind or another are made by those undergoing the training.

4. In order to induce the talented persons to undergo these sacrifices
and acquire the training, their future positions must carry an inducement value in the form of differential, i.e., privileged and disproportionate access to the scarce and desired rewards which the society has to offer.

5. These scarce and desired goods consist of the rights and perquisites
attached to or built into, the positions, and can be classified into those
things which contribute to a.) sustenance and comfort, b.) humor an
diversion, c.) self-respect and ego expansion.

6. This differential access to the basic rewards to the society has a
consequence the differentiation of the prestige and esteem which various strata acquire. This may be said, along with the rights and perquisites, to constitute institutionalized social inequality, i.e., stratification.

7. Therefore, social inequality among different strata in the amounts of scarce and desired goods, and the amounts of prestige and esteem, which they receive, is both positively functional and inevitable in any society.

Point 1 alone sinks the argument, as it depends on the premise that some jobs are more important to society than others, a premise I have already debunked in the past. All productive jobs (I say productive in order to take out of the equation parasitic activities like managing and governing) are equally important to everyone else, and no productive job could exist without all other productive jobs. No argument can bring us to the conclusion that any productive job is “more important to society” than any other job, except our personal preferences. Melvin Tumin, who addresses the argument in his essay in Social Class and Stratification, makes the very trenchant point that by definition any part of the status quo is necessary for the status quo as it exists at that time, and that therefore any such notion is tautological. And also:

[T]he judgment as to the relative in­dispensability and replaceability of a particular segment of skills in the population involves a prior judgment about the bargaining-power of that seg­ment. But this power is itself a culturally shaped consequence of the existing system of rating, rather than something inevitable in the nature of social organization. At least the contrary of this has never been demonstrated, but only assumed.

Point 2 falls prey to the same general fallacy: its assumptions are rooted in the inequality that it tries to justify. It is true that talent is not distributed equally within a population, but many other factors, such as discovering people’s talents, motivation, and education (i.e. the bringing about of those talents), are all dependent on the nature of the economic system within which that population exists.

Whether or not differential rewards and op­portunities are functional in any one generation, it is clear that if those differentials are allowed to be socially inherited by the next generation, then, the stratification system is specifically dys­functional for the discovery of talents in the next generation. In this fashion, systems of social strati­fication tend to limit the chances available to max­imize the efficiency of discovery, recruitment and training of “functionally important talent.”5

Additionally, the unequal distribution of re­wards in one generation tends to result in the un­equal distribution of motivation in the succeeding generation. Since motivation to succeed is clearly an important element in the entire process of ed­ucation, the unequal distribution of motivation tends to set limits on the possible extensions of the educational system, and hence, upon the efficient recruitment and training of the widest body of skills available in the population.6

Lastly, in this context, it may be asserted that there is some noticeable tendency for elites to re­strict further access to their privileged positions, once they have sufficient power to enforce such restrictions. This is especially true in a culture where it is possible for an elite to contrive a high demand and a proportionately higher reward for its work by restricting the numbers of the elite available to do the work. The recruitment and training of doctors in modern United States is at least partly a case in point.

I have quoted Tumin to this great extent because his arguments are logical, sharp and to the point. And because these two premises fall, the whole of the argument is untenable. There is no need to go into the rest of the premises. Tumin’s conclusion is that stratification (that is to say, economic hierarchy) limits available talent, limits the productive capacities of society, increases political power and support for the status quo, encourages hostility and distrust within society, erodes individual freedom, loyalty, and the motivation to participate in social institutions. Amen.

At any rate, the argument that people must be motivated to acquire “special skills,” and that this justifies inequality, seems to be another case of a misplaced conclusion. What I mean by “misplaced conclusion” is an argument of the form “if X then Y; therefore not-X” when the conclusion Y may be equally acceptable. For example, saying “being an atheist leads you to reject God’s laws, therefore don’t be an atheist” misses the point that rejecting God’s laws may very well be a good thing (and, of course, actually is).

Likewise, the implicit argument here seems to be “without inequality, we won’t be able to provide the motivation for people to hold jobs which require special skills, therefore we need inequality and hierarchies.” But the case could also be made, given the dramatic and profound problems with inequality and hierarchies, that we would be better off with these jobs being unfulfilled than we would be with the inequality and hierarchies.

Continuing this train of thought, we might want to ask ourselves whether the premise that these “most important positions” require such motivation to be filled that they entail systemic inequality and hierarchical concentrations of power is actually correct. Using doctors as an example, Cuba has the second highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world despite doctors being paid 1.5 times the national mean. This is not proof, but certainly a case in point (as for the rest, Cuba’s health care policy in general is oppressive, and not a model to follow). It seems we have to constantly remind people that material wealth and status are not the only motivators that exist. The fact that they take particular importance in our capitalist systems is more of a statement about capitalism than it is a statement about human beings.

I think this part of the argument really hinges on the premise that gaining these special skills requires sacrifice. One can very easily conceive of an economic system where this is not the case. In fact, for many people (children of rich families, on the whole) right now this is not the case anyway. They may lose the income they would have accumulated during their years of studies, but in the most lucrative professions they regain that money many times over. At any rate, there’s no particular reason why any job which requires higher education, for instance, cannot have its wages adjusted proportionally. Therefore, until that premise can be proven, the whole sacrifice issue is a non-starter, and there is no particular reason to believe that the “most important positions” would not be filled in an egalitarian system.

Indeed, what generally worries critics of Anarchist economics are the most degrading positions, which tend to be considered the “least important” in capitalist systems, not the high-status jobs. Therefore it seems strange to attack egalitarianism from the opposite side. People ask “if everyone was paid the same, who would choose to be a sewer worker?”, not “if everyone was paid the same, who would choose to be a doctor?”, because it’s much easier to imagine people freely choosing to become doctors (especially in a health care industry where there are no guilds, which would be the case in an Anarchy) than it is to imagine people freely choosing to become sewer workers. The concept that egalitarianism, that is to say the freedom to choose one’s work on the same footing than everyone else, means that people won’t choose to be doctors or engineers is a rather bizarre concept, not really worth the time spent on it.

One thought on “Refuting the arguments against equality.

  1. […] is why we need to keep producing new people so they can produce new ideas. As I discussed regarding Melvin Tumin’s defense of egalitarianism, the structure of economic hierarchy in place in our societies artificially limits the available […]

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