A presumption of equality?

In his recent 2011 interview for the Independent Review, Anthony de Jasay writes that he would have liked to write a short book on equalities but he has given up on the idea due to the challenges that his declining eyesight presents for meeting his usual high standards. However, his short contribution to the Václav Klaus festschrift offers some insights on his recent thoughts on equality. The starting point of ‘Ranking Worlds by Words: A Case for Inequality’ is the observation that, unlike pairings such as good and bad, or adequate and inadequate, there is no self-evident argument in favor of the position that equality is better than inequality, and whether we prefer one over the other is context-dependent.

Arguments in favor for ranking equality over inequality include the observation that “God has created all men equal,” “all human beings are worthy of equal respect,” and that “unequal endowments are unfair.” Jasay counters that, as a matter of empirical fact, men are not equal, basic individual introspection reveals that some people are more worthy of respect than others, and that to condemn the distributional consequences of different endowments is itself morally arbitrary and dependent on other assumptions (impartiality, equal respect, etc.) and produces an infinite regress of arguments.

If we judge equality and inequality on their merits it becomes clear that the argument cannot be decided one way or another. Not only do we sometimes value inequality over equality but enforcing equality in one realm of existence implies or produces inequality in other realms. For example, equality before the law can sustain inequality in income. As has been analyzed in great detail in other Jasay articles, any kind of public policy preferences can be stated or re-stated in such a way that it conforms to some kind of equality postulate.

Given this predicament, one may question whether is it possible to argue in favor of a presumption for or against equality, similar to Jasay’s argument favoring the presumption of liberty. Jasay writes that “the burden of proof need not be assigned to one of the parties to the debate. In a draw, neither party could discharge it. Failing conclusive argument that it ought to be changed, the world of the status quo prevails.” But “there is no presumption in favour of continuing the maintenance of equalities by continuous redistribution and the other related measures meant to prevent inequalities from arising again.”

While recognizing the usefulness of Jasay’s argument in favor of the presumption of liberty, one can reasonably wonder what kind of work arguments in favor or against any “presumption” can really do.  As Jasay himself recognizes in this article, “people will readily believe affirmations that favour their interests.” In a sense, Jasay’s arguments against the self-evident nature of equality as a normative ideal are just an extension of his non-cognitivism in ethics. Despite Jasay’s rejection of justificationism in moral and political philosophy, one cannot help suspecting that he may overestimate the importance of political philosophy and “ideas” (as opposed to human nature or bargaining) in shaping society.

Substituting the rational individual for the political philosopher, we can ask ourselves a rather different question; how does equality as a political objective enter a person’s practical reasoning and what does collective choice offer a typical citizen to make the world conform to this preference?

A related issue is the relationship between the pursuit of equality and poverty. In ‘Against Poverty and the Misuse of Language that Helps to Perpetuate it,” published in a recent collection of essays in honor of H.S.H. Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein, Jasay observes that human inequality is not a social construct but a fact of existence. Therefore, attempts to suppress inequality involve costs. Jasay mentions three kinds of costs: enforcement costs (ranging from record-keeping of taxable subjects to tax compliance), foregone capital accumulation due to income redistribution, and worsening of the marginal rate of transformation of effort into net income. This leads Jasay to ask the question whether the poor actually benefit from such redistributive efforts compared to the rise in income that they would enjoy under laissez-faire capitalism.

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