The New York Times pleasures us with a piece by a purported philosopher, a Dr. Samuel Scheffler, telling us that inequality really does matter because poverty. The problem with the argument being that it makes an incorrect assumption – that there is poverty in America – in order to reach its conclusion – that inequality matters. The argument therefore collapses down to the idea that inequality matters because inequality matters. An argument which is good politics, as the near endless examples of those successfully elected using it shows, but it’s not good philosophy.
Is Economic Inequality Really a Problem?
Yes, but the answer is less obvious than you might think.
It’s possible to give a number of reasons why this is true. Rawls and the veil of ignorance for example. It’s just damn unfair is another. Human societies become bloodthirsty and cruel with too much inequality. Hey, build your own argument as you wish.
It’s that the argument used here doesn’t work:
Even if poverty were eliminated and everyone had enough resources to lead a decent life, that would not by itself transform American citizenship into a relationship among equals.
The thing being that poverty has been eliminated. The global definition of poverty is living on less than $1.90 a day. This is not cash income, this is the value of consumption. This is at American prices, today’s American prices, and includes the value of housing, clothing, medical care and all the rest consumed in that day, plus the more obvious things like food, heating, telecoms and so on. Absent significant mental health or addiction problems there is no one in the US on this standard of living.
No, think on it. The value of a soup kitchen lunch is around and about this sum. This absolute poverty is something that has been dealt with. Poverty, that is, has been eliminated.
There is a limit to the degree of economic inequality that is compatible with the ideal of a society of equals and, although there is room for disagreement about where exactly the limit lies, it is clear that we have long since exceeded it.
Almost as an aside that’s something where a citation is needed. Let us take the usual measure of economic inequality, the Gini Index. For the US this is about 0.38, 0.39 or so – yes, we must measure after the influence of the tax and welfare system, not before. That of the UK perhaps 0.34, that of Sweden 0.25. Brazil possibly 0.60, as with China. OK, what’s the number compatible with a society of equals? If it’s clear we’ve already exceeded this then what is it?
Or to use another measure from the UK. Household incomes as measured purely by market outcomes are about 14 times, for the top 10% (this being the average of those top 10% incomes) those of the bottom 10%. Including taxes and benefits lowers this, obviously, then we should add in government provided services like education and health care (Yes, the US does provide health care to the poor even if perhaps not quite as much or as good as might be desired) and the consumption possibilities fall to about 4.5 times different.
Is that too much inequality? We’d like to see your workings if you say that it is.
But back to the main argument.
For practical purposes, it doesn’t make much difference which answer we give. In either case, the imperative that Professor Frankfurt identified — the imperative to ensure that all citizens have enough resources to lead decent lives — is of the utmost importance. It is appalling that so many people in a society as wealthy as ours continue to lack adequate housing, nutrition, medical care and education, and do not enjoy the full benefits of the rule of law.
And there’s the hole in the argument, Because we’ve already solved that absolute poverty, the default state on mankind. We’re now defining enough for the poor relative to what others have – as inequality. The $13,000 or so a year that is the American official poverty line is actually the entry point into the top 10% of many other societies. It was true of India until just a couple of years ago, is true – more than true – of much of sub-Saharan Africa today.
Poverty is being defined here as having less than others. Which isn’t a definition we can use if our logical structure is an attempt to show that inequality is the reason we must beat poverty. That argument collapses down to inequality is bad because inequality is bad. An argument that might even be true but it’s one that has nothing to do with poverty, isn’t it?