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.


The Rabbi Had a Point

One of my favorite stories is the one about the Rabbi of a small shtetl, or village, who was asked to mediate a quarrel between two residents. He listened to one side intently, then said, “yes, you are right.” Then he listened to the other man’s position, and said “yes, you are right.” A bystander protested. “Rabbi, they can’t both be right!” To which the Rabbi replied, “You also are correct.”

What I love about that story is that it underscores a point often missed in our toxic political culture: no one has a monopoly on being right. Or wrong. As I frequently remind my students, reality can be complicated. The right answer will often depend on context, on factual distinctions and how the question is framed.

Over the weekend, I read David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal and it reminded me of the Rabbi’s lesson. The book is excellent; it deserves the plaudits it has received. I don’t necessarily agree with every conclusion he draws from the considerable research he has consulted about the nature of the human animal, but his is a plausible, reasonable reading of available evidence.

At the end of the day–for me at least–the book made a case for a more social, more communitarian approach to government. I have long been leery of communitarianism, the argument that we are all socially embedded creatures who require an agreement about the ultimate ends of life. (The practical problem with communitarians is that many of them tend to be statists who would hand over to government the power to choose our life goals.   Marxists tried that and it wasn’t pretty.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that we have traveled a very long way toward radical individualism, and those results aren’t pretty either.

If the Rabbi were mediating this debate, he might say to the libertarians among us  “You are right that the state should not prescribe your beliefs and social behaviors.” He might also say to the communitarians “You are right that humans need a community to be a part of, a community that you help support and that helps support you”

Onlookers might protest that both things can’t be right, but in this case, I think they would be wrong.