Hit or Schmidtz


So, I'm generally a pretty big fan of University of Arizona philosopher David Schmidtz. His book The Limits of Government is ingenious and penetrating. The collection of essays on Robert Nozick he edited easily (a little too easily, alas) tops the list of book-length secondary literature on the late great Harvard philosopher. And I'm eager to dive into his forthcoming Elements of Justice [Word], the manuscript of which is sitting on my desk in anticipation of my having a few free hours. So I'm a bit disappointed to see that his opening salvo in a new Cato Unbound virtual roundtable on inequality—with comments due from Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker, and Cato's own Tom Palmer—is rather thin gruel.

The approach the essay takes to the forum's main question—when (if ever) and why should we care about (material) inequality?—is unsystematic to the point of bordering on rambling. We move from a string of decontextualized quotes from other philosophers (gesturing in the direction of an argument for… something) to a maddeningly cursory treatment of positional goods and then back to one of the main themes of the piece, the conflict between different forms of equality, as when equalizing material shares requires leaders to wield greater (and therefore more unequal) political power.

Part of the problem is that, to the extent it's possible to suss out precisely which egalitarian thinkers Schmidtz means to take as his foil, he seems to be dealing with the most crude, zero-sum proponents of material equality—those who see the total amount of social wealth as a fixed pie that can be reallocated, but not grown (or, at any rate, who don't see the allocative question as centrally linked to the question of the size of the pie). It's surely worth dispelling this kind of crude confusion—under which some egalitarians do seem to tacitly labor occasionally—in a sentence or two, but as Schmidtz himself notes, more sophisticated egalitarians like John Rawls and his successors certainly understand this connection—indeed, make it central to their view. Smacking around people who fail to recognize elementary points like this may be easy, but it doesn't advance the ball much. Time spent dealing with this is time not spent developing much of a reply to the central intuition underlying most egalitarian arguments: To wit, material differences generally result from lucky differences—inherent physical or mental ability, growing up in a functional community that instilled a work ethic or a love of education—that strike many as, on face, morally arbitrary.

The interesting question is not whether permitting some inequality can help increase the net amount of social wealth in a way that raises the absolute position of those who get the bad end of the stick—of course it can—but whether at some margin it's also desirable to further raise the position of the badly off through direct redistribution, perhaps even at the expense of shrinking the total material pie slightly. Pointing out that imposing a literally static distributional pattern would be disastrous for the badly off as well as the (potentially) better off doesn't get us any closer to an answer to that question. Diminishing marginal utility means it may be possible to grow the aggregate-happiness pie while shrinking the material-wealth pie. (Along which of these dimensions, if either, are we interested in equality? No clues here…) And even if the happiness-pie is smaller when more equal, it's not on-face absurd to suggest that a gain in the position of the badly off may be more morally attractive even at the cost of a greater diminution in the satisfaction of those who're already very happy. We can acknowledge both that economics (and happiness) aren't zero-sum and that what really matters is the absolute position of the badly off and still have an interesting question left about whether it's justified to lower the position of the top when this can raise the absolute level of those at the bottom. Even if we think this is never possible, at least over the long-term (though this raises additional interesting questions about intergenerational distributive justice), we might want to answer the theoretical question about whether this is desirable.

There's a hint of something interesting in the notion, borrowed from Elizabeth Anderson, that to compensate for such differences leads us to "lay claim to the resources of egalitarian redistribution in virtue of their inferiority to others, not in virtue of their equality to others," but nothing like the kind of adequate development that would make this reply more than a hint.

It's also often unclear at what level of abstraction Schmidtz is pitching his argument. Here, for example, are two possible positions suggested by the essay:

  • Material equality, at least in the sense of improving the position of the worst off, is important and part of justice, but redistribution actually hinders this end in the long run by diminishing the incentives to promote growth—so treating people as if they're entitled to what they can get on the open market is an inegalitarian concrete rule that best serves an egalitarian general principle.
  • Justice is not centrally about material equality, either as a ground-level rule or as a more abstract principle: What people are due is a function of their choices and capacities in a market system whose justification does not turn on its equality-promoting features at the meta-level.

At times Schmidtz seems to be defending one position, at times the other, but in neither case in enough detail to be terribly convincing to anyone not already convinced—the first would require an extraordinarily complex empirical analysis, the second rather more than name-checking Nozick. What one would expect to be the central question of an essay like this—to what extent do moral claims unconnected to the desirability of any particular distributional pattern exclude the further question of which pattern political institutions should promote—is implicated here and there in some of Schmidtz's analogies, but directly broached only in the closing sentence.

Since this post is itself becoming a bit rambly, let me sketch how I'd have liked to see a first-rate mind like Schmidtz's tackle this theme. Demands for material equality typically proceed from a more general premise about people's moral equality—the former is presented as flowing from the latter. The fundamental dispute between (material) egalitarians and others, then, is about what, precisely, it means to "treat people equally." What are the morally salient senses in which we're equal, and what sort of system best expresses respect for that core intutition that there's some way in which all people matter, and matter equally? If what matters equally is our hedonic satisfaction—our ouches and orgasms—then questions of material distribution will loom large in any theory of justice, and we're apt to focus on particular desirable patterns of distribution—though we may yet conclude that a system that countenances a high level of inequality at any particular time-slice best serves the interests of justice over the long run. If instead we focus on the equal importance of, say, our autonomy as "embedded" human beings with concrete characteristics and capacities, our theory of justice is going to accept material inequality at a higher level of abstraction. This is the kind of analysis Schmidtz hints at in closing, and I would've loved to have seen him tackle it from the outset.

Anyway, I'll be following the discussion at Cato Unbound with some interest, despite my probably-excessive bitching here. In the meantime, though, let me recommend Amartya Sen's excellent Tanner Lecture that deals with some of these themes, "Equality of What?" [PDF].