Friday, July 16, 2010

Equality and its discontents

Recently there's been a flurry of postings on a book that caused no little excitement a short while ago, called The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Not having read it myself, I can only refer to reports and reviews, but it appears to have a fairly simple thesis, contained in the subtitle of one of its editions: "Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger". That alone, naturally, would be enough to send hordes of commentators, pundits, and of course the liberal-left as a whole into raptures of delight, and it looks as though the early reviews mostly reflected that. Lately, however, reviews and comments have been a lot more critical, skeptical, and even, in some cases, scathing.

Will Wilkinson links to a milder example of this in a review by Claude S. Fisher in the July/August Boston Review. First, here's how Fisher summarizes their argument regarding the bad effects of inequality:
Inequality, they explain, makes people focus on status and their relative positions on the prestige ladder. Such obsessions, in turn, create anxiety, distrust, and social isolation, which raise people’s level of physiological stress. Finally, stress, as we all now know, exacts high costs. It weakens the immune system, for example, and drives people to poor coping behavior such as overeating and lashing out at others.
This is apparently supported by lots of graphs and stats comparing countries, regardless of cultural or historical context, and, for the US, comparing states. But here's how Fisher gently mocks what looks like an inherent absurdity of this sort of envy-thy-neighbor explanation of social ills:
Instead [of the massive health-care bill], the president would make us all happier, healthier, and longer-lived, their logic suggests, if he could get the richest, say, 5 percent of Americans to leave the country.
Or, as he says later, we could just censor the media -- in a good cause! -- to prevent the conspicuous displays of  wealth that apparently generate all these harmful feelings.

Natalie Evans, of the Guardian, also has a column on the issue, that links to a lengthy report put out by Peter Saunders, called "Beware False Prophets" (PDF), with a much more detailed critique, including lots of graphs and stats as well. Its last section is entitled "Propaganda masquerading as science" (a familiar-enough theme these days in so-called social science generally). (To be fair, here's the authors' rebuttal to Saunders, and here's a rebuttal of the rebuttal. The last is interesting as coming from a "Kurdish-Swedish" perspective, on the Super-Economy blog of Tino Sanandaji.)

And then Ed West, in the Telegraph, piles on, linking to a whole book devoted to shredding the The Spirit Level -- Christopher Snowdon's The Spirit Level Delusion, subtitled "Fact Checking the Left's New Theory of Everything". For a demonstration of how easy it is to reverse correlations by just picking a different, in fact more complete, selection of populations and variables, see the "Graphs and sources" post on his supporting blog.

So. It certainly looks as though The Spirit Level is just another sad entry in the list of political abuses of science. Never mind the correlation/causation distinction, it doesn't even seem to get very far establishing correlation without cherry-picking data, and of course ignoring culture and history, not to mention an enormous number of other factors like race, ethnic make-up, income, institutions, social mobility, etc., etc.

But, before throwing it away altogether, it's worth asking: what if, despite everything, it were true? Would it make the case that the state should intervene in order to establish more equality? (Note that its case is that more equality is always better.) What of other, more important values, aside from the ones being measured -- values like aspiration, enterprise, justice, or freedom? Since we're dealing in hypotheticals now anyway, suppose that a similar study had been made regarding freedom itself, and found that societies with less freedom had better "social outcomes" on a variety of measures than those with more. Would it follow that the state should decrease freedom in order to make us happier?  Would we, should we, in such a case aim for a kind of totalitarianism, say, on the grounds that slaves generally live longer? I don't think so myself, and I can only hope that others would agree.


  1. On the other hand: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

    What do you think comes first liberty or equality?

    What is justice's first demand?

    I can imagine situations when even in the absence of liberty inequality amongst those not free is an injustice.

    I think equality, as the Declaration suggests, is the constating principle within which liberty must find itself.

  2. I think that "all men are created equal" is still on the same hand, actually, in the sense that it doesn't conflict in the slightest with the repudiation of any value or virtue attached to substantive equality, which is what The Spirit Level is talking about. Clearly, the Declaration is referring to equality of status, as opposed to substance, since it's absurd rather than self-evident to suppose that all people are created equal in substance (including their own substantive capacities). The confusion arises because of the different meanings of the word, and it would certainly be helpful if we had another term to designate substantive equality -- maybe "parity"?

    In any case, it's worth noting that liberty and equality in the Declarations's sense don't conflict at all. In fact, I think they support one another, as you perhaps suggest, and therefore I don't think they need to be prioritized. On the other hand -- and now we really do need that hand -- liberty and state-enforced substantive equality, or parity, are inherently in conflict. Their coexistence is unstable at best, and will always tend toward the destruction of one or the other.

  3. The meaning of your first sentence isn’t entirely clear to me though I could guess at what you mean--the simultaneity between liberty and procedural equality. (I’m not familiar with the book you are blogging about admittedly.) But there is an elementary distinction of course between procedural equality also captured by the notion of equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. While there may often be among thinkers about equality some slippage in the use of the two notions, it is wrong to dismiss arguments for systemic adjustments to help change equality of outcome as a simple failure to understand that elementary distinction. The question is one of line drawing.

    I don’t know what the Declaration’s writers made of the notion of equality in the sense that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. But laws promoting equality of opportunity, which are rife in every liberal democracy in the world, speak to the social impossibility of any regime of pure equality of opportunity. The question is always to recognize that and deliberate about where lines are to be drawn. The question is not jettisoning social amelioration though a legislative helping hand, which is to say, the question is never the utter rejection of substantive equality. That’s why in the liberty and equality will always be in tension, one born at the expense of the other.

    I do note, though, as a matter of untutored textual construction, the Declaration accords textual primacy to equality and makes it a necessary condition for Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness which are, all three, given textual equivalence, after the recogniton of equality.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Itzik, and it gives me an opportunity to clarify a few things from my own perspective at least:

    First: equality of status does not mean -- or at least I certainly don't mean by it -- equality of opportunity (which I see as just another version, alongside equality of outcome, of substantive equality). Equality of status means just what your famous and mocking quote says -- that the poor and the rich have the same status under law, and that there are no special classes or castes. People may laugh or sneer at that sort of equality, but it was and remains a cornerstone of modern political institutions.

    Second, "social amelioration" is quite a distinct objective from equality of any sort. The former aims to help or improve people without regard to how they compare with others. The latter in its substantive form, on the other hand, aims merely at making people's conditions more alike, without any necessary regard to how it helps or hurts them in the process. For the record, I'm for various kinds of social amelioration; but I regard enforced substantive equality as unjust and wrong, as founded upon mere envy (which is, if anything, worse than greed), and as something to be rejected utterly.

    Third, the reason why liberty and equality of status are never in tension is because they each imply the other. If all people are free, then all people are in that sense, and to that extent equal; If all people have equal status, then no one and no group has any special right to command or coerce others, except as democratically agreed upon and constitutionally allowed.

  5. Meta, I appreciate you clarifying the difference between your understanding of equality of opportunity and equality of status, the latter term not entirely familiar to me. In fact it has always been my understanding the equality of opportunity is counterpoised with substantive equality, the former being typified by equal procedures for available benefits, the latter being at least in part antidote to systemic inequality by programs like affirmative action.

    The virtue of the law applying equally to all to whom it applies granted and notwithstanding, “formal equality”, it is an impoverished conception of equality. It is as remote from equality talk as is the idea that those who argue for measures of substantive equality wish for an (impossible) universe of across the board equality. A limitation of formal equality is that unequal laws can be equally applied. Legislation of necessity classifies so, most broadly, under the conventional equality of law analysis, for example, the question is: does an impugned law treating different classes of people differently rationally or reasonably create class of those similarly situated on the basis of reasonable differentiation necessarily related to a lawful legislative purpose, which is to say that the law can treat people differently but still equally under law.

    I think respectfully you betray a weakness in your analysis when you separate social amelioration from the objectives of equality of any sort. Again no serious thinker days aims at achieving across the board equality by programs of substantive equality. Affirmative action is a case in point. Those denied a position in some professional school even though they have higher marks, test scores, what have you argue they are being discriminated against by the law’s giving some weight to factors such as race. The merits of their argument aside, the trenching on pure merit here is not to create population proportions that mirror percentages of groups of people in the population—that has been rejected in the American case law. The aim is precisely amelioration of the huge gaps in the over inclusion of some groups—typically whites and Asians –in these schools and the under inclusion of other groups—typically Black and Hispanic, all in the name of a greater measure of numeric equality. I’d suggest that you can’t distinguish between social amelioration under law and substantive equality.

    I have trouble seeing how liberty and equality, in the terms we are —or at least I am— discussing imply each other. The issue, I’m suggesting, cannot rest on the foundation of equality as merely formal equality. Consider Brown and the idea of separate but equal. At stake was the liberty of white parents not to have their kids to go to school with black kids. You can assume for the sake of analyzing that case that the school facilities were functionally equal, because even if they weren’t, the case’s result would have been the same. So the liberty of white families to have their kids be educated separately suffered at the court’s insistence—overturning the precedent of separate but equal— that equality demanded the right of black parents have their kids go to the same school. So equality was bought at the expense of liberty.

    Alexander Hamilton said: “Inequality will exist as long as liberty exists. It unavoidably results from that very liberty itself.” And this is the brunt of Tocqueville’s concern that his ideal of “equality of conditions” means the erosion of liberty while liberty hampers in turn the achievement of the same “equality of conditions”.

  6. Okay, but this is now taking us further afield from the topic of substantive equality as somehow improving a society's "strength" or "health" or general goodness. I guess I'd just suggest that we try to keep meanings relatively distinct -- e.g., in your last paragraph, Hamilton and Tocqueville's own words indicate clearly that they're referring to what I've been calling "substantive equality" or "equality of conditions" as opposed to or at least as distinct from what I've been calling "equality of status" and what you call "formal equality". And certainly, as I've already tried to say quite clearly and forcefully, liberty and substantive equality not only don't imply one another, they are precisely bought at one another's expense. Here, for example, was what I'd already said:

    "On the other hand -- and now we really do need that hand -- liberty and state-enforced substantive equality, or parity, are inherently in conflict. Their coexistence is unstable at best, and will always tend toward the destruction of one or the other."

    And I have one further concern about the way in which you use the word "ameliorate". It seems to me that anyone might use it to beg any question by simply pasting the word over any policy they happen to prefer -- e.g., any racist could say that they merely want to "ameliorate" the excessive numbers of asians, latinos, blacks, jews, scots, etc. in whatever area or institution they're obsessing over, but I think neither of us would accept such usage. To be a little more specific, if someone is trying to argue that there's an important distinction between amelioration and equality as policy objectives, then it is simply begging that very question to use "ameliorate" to describe reducing inequality. In any case, that's just not how I used the term when I said I was in favour of ameliorating people's conditions without regard to how they compare to others.

    All that said, I don't doubt there's a long debate to be had over the meaning and legitimacy of equality in any form. The book that gave rise to this post was hailed originally as a major contributor to that debate because it purported to be "scientific" evidence of the practical value of substantive equality. But that, of course, was just what its critics have denied.

  7. Just briefly and respectfully Meta:

    1. Formal equality, or what you call status equality, while necessary, is only a starting point. It takes us not far at all in thinking about equality in society. So it’s not saying very much to say that formal equality and liberty imply each other, are both on the same hand. No society operates without legislative substantive equality,

    2. Just briefly on amelioration: if my use of it is question begging, I mean for it not to be. I wasn’t arguing the merits of any particular ameliorative policy such as affirmative action—though I’d be happy to. Whether a policy is ameliorative is a discrete question and if answered affirmatively needs to survive the question of whether the legislative social engineering is worth the costs. But my point, poor thing that it might be, is to suggest that legislative amelioration—helping some similarly situated group to do better—is substantive equality in action. If not, I’d like to see a telling example otherwise. And, just to repeat, formal equality is too, too an attenuated account of the meaning of equality in society.

  8. Briefly and just as respectfully in response:

    1. We disagree. Formal equality is both a necessary and sufficient meaning of equality that is both just and moral. Substantive equality, on the other hand has nothing to do with either justice or morality. If it's an objective pursued without coercive means -- i.e., by non-state actors -- then it may not be positively unjust, but, unlike amelioration (see below), it's a morally indifferent pursuit, somewhat like religious sects pursuing converts.

    It's debatable whether any society operates without legislative substantive equality, with the debate hinging on one's interpretation of the objectives of such things as progressive taxation, say. I think many would argue, for example, that such taxation has to do with ability to pay for needed programs rather than with a deliberate attempt to force equality by taking money from some to give to others. But, regardless of that debate, if it's true that no present society so operates, that doesn't make the case that such operation is just or morally blameless, any more than the observation two centuries ago that no society present then operated with the consent of the governed. When we see wrongs, no matter how widespread, we should try to correct them, not adjust to them.

    2. I don't say your point equating amelioration with substantive equality in action is a "poor thing", but I do think, I'm afraid, that it's confused. To distinguish the two, I can't do better than repeat what I've already said: amelioration "aims to help or improve people without regard to how they compare with others. [Equality] in its substantive form, on the other hand, aims merely at making people's conditions more alike, without any necessary regard to how it helps or hurts them in the process." Amelioration may incidentally result in some degree of greater substantive equality, but a) it doesn't have to, and b) that would be just a side effect anyway. This might help make clear the distinction.


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