How does egalitarianism work?

Sophisticated arguments against egalitarianism revolve around the difference between what Derek Parfit calls equality (wanting to make people equal relatively to each other) and priority (making helping the most destitute a priority compared to helping everyone else). We can also talk about relative wealth (how individuals compare to each other) and absolute wealth (how much individuals have). Is it better to live in a society where there are vast disparities but the most destitute are well off, or a society where everyone is equally miserable?

The problem here is the assumption that we should choose one or the other. The two concepts in themselves are at tension, but any given policy can end up both making people more equal and making the most destitute more well-off.

Take for example the collectivization of the means of production. This has an immediate equalizing effect, in that it reduces the wealth gap between workers and owners. But it also has a prioritizing effect in giving the least well off more possibilities for employment.

The same general principle applies to equality of power. Making pornography illegal has an immediate equalizing effect between men and women, but in the long term also has a prioritizing effect in that it stops the escalation of violent and bizarre acts on prostitutes, rape victims, and other dispossessed women.

This leads us to the popular conception that egalitarians support a “leveling down” of society in the name of equality, that they want everyone to be worse off just to bring about some abstract concept of equality, and that it demands us to sacrifice well-being. But this is just silly: we all want to be better off. Given a choice between two policies, one which narrows the gap and makes most people better off (e.g. collectivization of the means of production, welfare systems, reducing sexism) and one which narrows the gap and makes almost everyone worse off (e.g. higher progressive taxes used for military or other elitist purposes), the egalitarian will obviously choose the former.

I’ve argued before that equality and freedom are two sides of the same coin. The last example I used is predicated on hierarchy (a government which collects and makes decisions about tax money), and therefore, even if it has an equalizing effect on wealth, it is not inherently compatible with the value of equality. This brings us to the issue of the relevant kinds of things that one seeks equality about. What are the target areas of egalitarian policies?

Opinions on what kind of egalitarianism to adopt are widely varied. Luck egalitarianism, for instance, states that inequalities that are not due to our “choices” must be rectified, while all others must not (I don’t believe in choice, so this seems like a moot point to me). Another is equality of opportunities, which I’ve debunked many times on this blog. Subjective positions (such as equally fulfilling desires) suffer from the same fatal problems as utilitarianism, in that inter-subjective comparisons are impossible in practice.

As for the target areas, wealth and income seem like obvious areas, but they cannot be the only ones, otherwise Soviet Russia would have been a utopia. More generally, giving people an equal amount of money is not freedom if they are unable to decide what is produced and how it is produced.

Anarchists are most interested in inequalities of power; power is a broader concept than just wealth, and encompasses structural issues such as hierarchies, institutional exploitation, discrimination and bigotry. The objective here is to either eliminate power or otherwise distribute it equally.

There is a popular fallacy that egalitarianism should, or is, just about equal wages or equal opportunities, without talking about the underlying structures of power (in the same general way that people say feminist is just about equal wages or equal opportunities, without discussing Patriarchy). This is merely another variant of reformism and is incompatible with a systemic analysis of society. Of course inequality of wages or opportunities is a problem, but they are symptoms of greater structural inequalities which cannot be resolved by shifting resources around.

An opposite fallacy is that egalitarians want everyone to be the same in every way, have the same job and the same possessions. This is robotic conformity, not equality. Egalitarians do not want everyone to have the same job, they want everyone to have a job where they are in control of their own production. People holding different jobs or no job at all, or having different possessions, is perfectly egalitarian as long as those jobs or possessions don’t give them power over others.

A system where everyone has a roughly equal amount of power is not a system of uniformity, quite the contrary. People naturally do not want to be uniform, so who, in a system of equal power, could impose uniformity on everyone else? Any kind of uniformity would only be imposed if it was in the greatest interest of all (such as respecting other people’s rights or the integrity of the environment).

I have discussed previously how egalitarianism is the bedrock for all social virtues. Conversely, any concept of equality which does not support social virtues is not a concept that should concern us. It is inherently just for us to treat each other fairly, but deciding to treat each other fairly opens the door to all the other commitments we find valuable, such as protecting consent, protecting human rights, respecting each other’s values, and so on.

3 thoughts on “How does egalitarianism work?

  1. maphisto86 March 5, 2014 at 21:52 Reply

    One of my favorite of your articles so far. Well written!

  2. Michael March 7, 2014 at 02:32 Reply

    Indeed, a great post. I would like to see more people comment on it. (By the way, I have serious obligations elsewhere and I am mentally exhausted)

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