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The 1% and the 99%: Equality, Inequality, Justice and Fairness

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules"
---Barack Obama

"These actions starkly highlight the difference between the two parties that lies at the heart of the matter: Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving toward an insistence on equality of outcome."
---Paul Ryan

There is no doubt that this is a politically charged topic, indeed, it is a major theme of the upcoming presidential contest. I want to emphasize that this will be a philosophical and not a political debate, and I hope that we can consider the ideas rather than the people who espouse them.

There are two broad categories of equality. The first might be called equality of democratic citizenship. This ideal demands that each member of society equally should be assured basic rights of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to vote and stand for office in free elections, the right not to suffer imprisonment or deprivation at the hands of the state without due process of law, and the right to equal protection of the law construed as forbidding laws that assign benefits and burdens in ways that discriminate arbitrarily on the basis of such factors such as race, creed, and gender.

The general concept of equality of democratic citizenship is widely accepted in modern liberal democracies, although what it encompasses is debated. The other categories of equality is equality of condition (equality of outcome, economic equality). Unlike equality of democratic citizenship, equality of condition, particularly in America, is controversial---to put it mildly!

There has been much attention to growing economic inequality, with the Occupy movement, talk of the 1% and 99%, and recent books with differing views about the effects of growing economic inequality:

Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future.

Edward Conard, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.

As this is a philosophy club, we will specifically focus on the moral issues related to equality of condition. The political debate over this issue has moral dimensions in addition to the usual practical ones, particularly as one side often casts the issue as one of fairness. But people of different political persuasions have different definitions of fairness. Is it more fair that those who do more get more, or that there is more equal distribution?

Article: Democrats and Republicans agree that Justice & Fairness are about Equity, not Equality or Impartiality.

Please see the forum post, What's wrong with the 1%? - Equality and inequality, for a list of questions to consider before the meeting.

Philosophers ask, why equality? Some think that there is a simple presumption in favor of equality. For example, if we have a pie and 10 people around, one would have to explain why there should not be 10 equal slices. But some philosophers would note, pies do not come from heaven: what if Mary thought up the recipe, John supplied the ingredients, Joe baked the pie, and Jane added some whip cream---and the other 6 weren’t directly involved---what size slices, if any at all, should they get?

Some philosophers challenge equality of condition on the basis of self-ownership arguments (this is the position typically associated with Robert Nozick and libertarianism). In this formulation, equality of condition requires interventions that violate liberty, and thus there is a fundamental conflict between liberty and equality.

Outside of philosophy, many challenge equality of condition based upon principles of desert and responsibility.

Other philosophers argue that equality by itself has no intrinsic value. Rather, we should focus on whether improving the lot of those who are in the most need, or ensuring a basic minimum, without any regard to whether there is more or less equality.

Perhaps the primary argument for equality of condition is the idea that much of what determines economic success is a matter of luck, and as such, morally arbitrary. Some philosophers argue that much of what determines your success, such as the place and circumstances of your birth, your parenting, and your natural abilities are not things you could deserve.

John Rawls famously argued that if we started from an original position under a veil of ignorance about what sort of people we would be, we would allow for inequalities only to the extent that they are to the benefit of the least well-off members of society. But notice that an able-bodied surfer who chooses not to work and surfs all day would qualify for redistribution.

Luck egalitarianism holds that we should aim for equality of condition in situations where brute luck holds, but allow for inequality in situations where it does not (e.g., making a greater effort, good choices). So in this case, the surfer gets nothing. But going back to the free will debate, if we lack free will and everything is beyond our control, can we deserve even the fruits of our greater efforts?

We will also discuss global inequality which is a substantially greater challenge. Why should we care about inequality in America, when the bottom 5% of Americans are actually at the 68% percentile globally?

No preparatory reading is necessary, but reading the forum post linked above may be helpful. I’ve included two links for those who are interested (the second link is one of the most cited philosophy papers in recent times):

Distributive Justice, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Elizabeth S. Anderson. "What Is the Point of Equality?" Ethics, Jan 1999 v109 i2 p287.

Here's a video conversation between Elizabeth Anderson and David Schmidtz on equality.

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