Kinds of Inequality

I sometimes listen to a podcast called Persuasion, in which Yascha Mounk interviews prominent writers and thinkers on a variety of subjects relevant to government and policy. I was particularly intrigued by a recent conversation he had with philosopher Michael Walzer.

Walzer is a noted communitarian, and as someone of a more libertarian bent, I have disagreed with several of his positions. (My issues with communitarianism are for another day…) In this interview, however, he makes some fascinating and persuasive points about the nature–and the varieties–of inequality.

Walzer begins by distinguishing between equality and sameness, and between power and resources.

If you think about the political system we have, we have a mechanism called elections for reducing inequality—radical inequality. Some people win, some people lose. Some people have a lot of power, some people have far less, and many of us are just watching. And yet, in the distributive system—if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded—the resulting inequality is okay. The distribution of medical care should go to the people who are sick or most sick. That seems a natural way of distributing medical care, even though it means that some people get more if they need it, and some people get less if they don’t. 

The most important caveat in the foregoing paragraph is this one: “if the elections are free and fair, and if the right of opposition is safeguarded.”

Walzer then considers the role of equality in achieving justice.

What makes for injustice is not inequality in political power or inequality in the distribution of health care or welfare or education. It is when these distributions don’t take place for the right reasons and through the right procedures. It’s when you get more health care than I do because you have more money than I do. You have taken success in the market and you have bought health care, or elite positions for your children in the country’s universities, or political influence. So it’s the use of one social good which may be rightly possessed to claim many other social goods that ought to be distributed differently. It’s an argument that depends on what the special goods we distribute mean to the people who make them and share them. And those meanings may be different in different societies.

In other words–as I used to tell my students–it depends. And it’s complicated.

Mounk responds to Walzer’s observations by referencing current criticisms of American capitalism, especially the dominance (not simply the possession) of money. As he says, it is one thing to buy yourself a nicer watch or car than your neighbor can afford. It is another thing entirely when your greater fiscal resources buy you “better healthcare, better access to education, better access to opportunities for your children, higher likelihood of winning political office.”  That is when we are rightfully concerned.

As Walzer puts it,

It doesn’t bother me if you can collect rare books and I can’t, or if you can take a month’s vacation and I just get two weeks. That doesn’t bother me. It’s when your wealth matters in every other sphere of activity—and right now, crucially, in politics. It’s when your wealth can buy a senator or a judge, or a law, or an exemption from a law—all of that I want to rule out. I don’t think it’s crucial to a socialist or social democratic society, that someone who has an economic green thumb or some entrepreneur who invents some machine that people enjoy using, that they make more money than I make. It’s what they can do with the money that matters.

The interview contains a number of very interesting exchanges, including Walzer’s description of himself as a liberal communitarian, and his criticism of the illiberal Left. I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety–but I’ll end by highlighting Walzer’s observations on the “education wars” I often write about.

Walzer notes that, when it comes to conflicts between religious doctrines and public education, we’ve gone quite a long way in the direction of accommodating religion. As he says, we’ve allowed religious communities to create parochial schools. We’ve allowed the Amish to take their kids out of school before the established legal age. We’ve allowed the Haredim in Kiryas Joel to run a public school system. But these children are going to grow up to vote in our elections, and that fact gives citizens of the democratic state an important interest in their education. That interest leaves considerable room for parental decision-making, but–as Walzer says– it is too important to abandon.

A thought-provoking conversation.


  1. Well, you have done it again, Sheila. I’ll now spend the rest of the day mulling this over.

  2. “Kinds Of Inequality”; the subject brought to mind my late Uncle Don, the proverbial “rich uncle”, whose numbers of millions I never needed to know, I just knew that he had them. When we sat talking, we were on equal ground, being accepting of one another’s views whether we agreed or not or the reasons for our disagreements. The Constitution gave us that same “kind” of equality regarding our equal right to vote; granted we have had to fight for some specific groups of people, but that level of equality is being taken away by the very government which is supposed to provide and protect that right.

    “If you think about the political system we have, we have a mechanism called elections for reducing inequality—radical inequality. Some people win, some people lose. Some people have a lot of power, some people have far less, and many of us are just watching.”

    How many of us are sitting and watching, stunned at the current “radical inequality”, as those who have paid their way to being more equal, remain above the Rule of Law and the Constitution in a system where we pay for their protection to remain above the Rule of Law and the Constitution. We are paying in the cost of government departments, their qualified employees’ knowledge and experience involved in the struggle to regain equality in our elections. At the same time we are also being forced into paying for protection of their lives and the lives of witnesses and all involved in the unending investigation of blatant sedition and treason which the world sat and watched with us. We are paying most in the loss of faith and trust in this government by Americans and our allies at large.

    Will this outcome depend on Rule of Law and the Constitution or whose money paid for the outcome. It really isn’t that complicated after the past eight years of Trump, MAGA, White Nationalism and the Freedom Caucus. We are waiting for the determination of strengthening democracy or giving in to neo-Fascism. We are watching our own “Judgement at Nuremberg” level of governmental criminals, still only threatened with conviction for the most part, for their crimes.

  3. Limiting the influence of wealth in politics is crucial to prevent an unfair advantage for the wealthy. It is a significant issue in the US due to weak campaign finance laws and the revolving door between the government and the private sector. Accommodating religious diversity in public education while ensuring access to quality education for all is complex, but possible. We must ensure religious schools meet the same standards as public schools and do not promote hate or discrimination. Walzer’s insights add to the debates on creating a more democratic and equitable society.

    (Bard and Grammarly AI edited the above response.)

    Walzer seems to be advocating for social planning which is what Einstein shared with us in the 40s. Instead, we are stuck in predatory capitalism where wealth not only matters, the more wealth you have, the more control and power it avails you.

  4. In the4 case of the Amish, they are a unique population in the U.S.A. More than half of my neighbors are Amish. They eat well and love their families. I won’t pretend everything they do is okay but I am of the opinion that their educational system works for their culture.
    Much like the argument for not going to college, I know a number of Amish have their own property by the time they are in their 20s. I see their buggies going down the road daily during the school year for their 8 years of education. My Amish neighbors are actually pretty well-rounded and incredibly kind.
    4 years ago when we moved to South Central Michigan my neighbors Jake and Carolyn Graber’s buggy was hit by a drunk driver. Three of their children were killed. They acted by pleading for the defendant not to be given a long sentence, I know no people who would beg for forgiveness for the drunk killer of their children.

    That said I do not believe parochial and religious schools should receive public taxpayer funding. If you want to send your kids to a private school you should pay their way.

    I do agree that there are many places for inequality but there is certainly a bias toward giving better service for those who have money. I saw it with my own father. He had disappeared from my life at 4 and reappeared at 18. Ironically my father was a rather well-to-do and widely-known and ironically admired person. We lived 200 miles apart and I had no idea the things he had accomplished.

    The second time he got cancer he was on chemo and blood transfusions to keep him alive for nearly 5 years. When I would go to visit him he received many perks that I am certain 99% did not receive. He got free parking for his guests and free meals for visitors. At the time I was appreciative but hardly in need.

    There is a terrible imbalance in services provided for the wealthy and little aid for the poor or average people in society. This is criminal in my opinion. Dad felt he deserved it and he was definitely very ill. At the time I was a little embarrassed as I had been raised by my mom and other relatives who had very little in the way of material or monetary resources. To see the wealth, prestige, and perks that were exercised by the wealthy seemed to fly in the face of equality and equal treatment.

  5. It’s been a while since I’ve read the material, but I’m going to say that Rawls got it right.

  6. Yes, the final paragraph is very thought provoking. My husband and I have often discussed the limitations of certain types of schools and of how many children are prevented from realizing their potential. But this paragraph takes it to the next social level of how people vote which can skew democratic societies. There are many other factors that go into how we vote but the lack of a comprehensive education does not help. I would add that even with the “best” of education from our elite so-called liberal universities, the human element constrains/distorts values and election outcomes not unlike the examples of schooling Walzer provides. Think current events.

  7. Rick, I once lived in a rural community with a large Amish population. I traded in their store whenever possible (good merchandise for a fair price) and got to know one Amish farmer who gave me advice on starting my orchard. They had a small school and did not get any tax money to finance its operation. What they did get from that community was better.
    Once a year they held a big dinner for the larger community. The local school donated the use of the high school cafeteria, the Amish women cooked the meal and the children served their guests. The men would rotate around the room sitting with the various tables and talk with the folk. There was no price for the meal and this experience; the hundreds of attendees gave what they could. It was far more than what any of us would have spent at a restaurant.
    It was a beautiful thing.

  8. As a person who believes very much in works of charity I have been appalled about nonprofits dependence on the wealthy. It’s evident when they decide to hold golf tournaments and dinner galas WHO they are trying to schmooze. I find this very concerning. Nonprofits who assist the poor should not be almost completely reliant on the charity of the rich when the wealth gap keeps growing. A healthy nonprofit in my opinion has a variety of donors and the erosion of the middle class and lack of upward movement for the poor has not helped.

  9. There’s a lot that we can learn from the Amish about what’s truly important and about how Christians should behave. On the other hand, there is much in life that they aren’t allowing themselves that enhance the quality and beauty of life, music and art are examples.

    A couple of weeks ago I was getting an MRI. While I was filling out forms, I saw a woman who couldn’t afford the co pay. A good Samaritan paid it for her. That should never happen in a society as wealthy as ours!

  10. Peggy Hannon, you would likely be surprised to find the Amish do enjoy music. They love to sing hymns together. While they do consider “art” as wasteful they make beautiful quilts.
    Their art is their simple life. I might also add Carolyn Graber makes chocolate pudding cakes at $2 a loaf. I have bought well over a hundred of them. It got to the point I had delivery drivers who work in the area stopping by and asking me if I had any cakes.
    Her Chocolate pudding cakes are truly artistic. They are certainly delectable which is truly a thing of beauty.

  11. since 1983 the monitary system of wages and who gets what and when, was literally written as law. the banking and wall street greed has written what was never written before. buy out a complete politcal party and add a few corp liberals and walla! inequality in overdrive.suposedly the whole discussion is obvious who has what,and why. its change is in our generational lifetime. no one bothered to question it during,after or up til now who got what,and how? the fact the working class is so buried into making it,it driven over them and left us with growing skid marks. ignorance be granted,how in hell can someone on the lower classes take any action except by a vote,rigged to suppress and squander life. the stairway to the bottom has become a funnel. discussions may open eyes and some doors. but unless theres a full tilt change in the halls of congress now, the greed factory will become the next goverment. Isreal has taken the dark step to push democracy over the edge,Netenyaho has become what trump failed at. time for a change,stop the infernos and stop the greed factorys..the working class is still the biggest block of voters,time for some same level hands on maybe the last time..

  12. Is it true that the US is defined by a single market, the exchange of goods and services for tokens of wealth, while more successful countries add to our single market, others?

    How about a market to distribute work, healthcare, food, minimal shelter including fresh water, energy, information and waste out, and education to everyone up to a minimum standard based on human rights in a successful country?

  13. When justice/injustice is the issue yes, it’s what one can do with the wealth he/she has
    created. Just as it would not be unjust to lose a foot race to someone who simply runs faster
    than me, someone to whom, within this context, I am not equal. It’s losing after I cross the finish
    line before that one, but that one owns the referee, who finds an excuse to disqualify me.

  14. Perhaps we focus too much on rights and not enough on responsibilities. If I want to claim a right to something (life, freedom of speech, etc.) then I have a responsibility to help provide that right to every other member of society, because these are things which individuals cannot provide for themselves by themselves. In the world as it exists today, I cannot provide even the necessities of life, breathable air, drinkable water, sufficient food and shelter from the weather, without the help of other people. Not can I secure the many other things that I need in order to be a productive member of society, such as education, security, mental and physical health, etc. without the help of my fellow humans.
    In a huge, complicated, technologically advanced society, it is easy to lose sight of the extent of our individual responsibilities.

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