Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Summer 2002; Volume 8, Number 2

Don't Dream the Impossible 

The Ideal of Equality Edited by Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (St. Martin’s Press, 2000 ix + 230 pgs.)

This useful anthology contains the single most deplorable comment on a philosophical topic that I have ever encountered. But before I get to it, I must first set the stage.

The anthology collects a number of influential articles about equality, by such eminent philosophers as John Rawls, T.M. Scanlon, Derek Parfit, and G.A. Cohen. All favor egalitarian measures, but the book offers excellent material to those inclined in a libertarian direction. In their attempts to demonstrate the merits of equality, these distinguished thinkers succeed only in showing how weak this alleged ideal is.

Derek Parfit, in particular, devastates egalitarianism with his Levelling Down Objection. If you say that equality of wealth or income is an imperative of morality, are you not committed to the following strange consequence? A state of affairs in which everyone lives in poverty ranks morally superior to one in which a group of people in the society have risen to wealth. In the latter situation, the remainder of society stays poor and inequality has thus increased. Even though none is worse off in the changed circumstances and some have gained, our egalitarian dogma requires us to remain content with universal poverty. The benefits of the altered situation are bought at too high a price.

Parfit states the essence of his argument in this way: "Suppose that those who are better off suffer some misfortune, so that they become as badly off as everyone else. Since these events would remove the inequality, they must be in one way welcome . . . even though they would be worse off for some people, and better for no one. This implication seems to many to be quite absurd. I call this the Levelling Down Objection" (p. 98). 

Egalitarians might at first be tempted to counter Parfit by appeal to the supposed malign effects of inequality. What if the poor found that the prosperity of the newly fortunate lowered their self-esteem? Might not the increase in wealth enable the fortunate few to seize control of the government? By stress on such contingencies, egalitarians might seek to escape the force of Parfit’s objection.

But replies of this kind miss Parfit’s point: the Levelling Down Objection has a narrower focus. Egalitarians think that equality has intrinsic value: they advocate it for its own sake, not just to forestall bad consequences. Thus, they have to say that the situation Parfit depicts has been in part a change for the worse, even if these supposed bad consequences of inequality do not come to pass. Parfit’s question retains its full force: why is the situation bad, when some in it have been made better off, and none worse off?

Larry Temkin, a philosopher of strongly egalitarian bent who once studied with Parfit, attempts to counter the objection. In so doing,  he startles us with the following comment: "Isn’t it unfair for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own? Isn’t it unfair for some to be blind, while others are not? And isn’t unfairness bad? . . . But, the anti-egalitarian will incredulously ask, do I really think that there is some respect in which a world where only some are blind is worse than one where all are? Yes" (p. 155). Readers will readily grasp why Professor Temkin wins my award for most unfortunate philosophical comment. (I ought to have said that the works of Peter Singer are excluded from the competition.)

Temkin hastens to assure us that he does not favor blinding everyone to make things fair: "Does this mean I think it would be better if we blinded everyone? No. Equality is not all that matters. But it matters some" (p. 155).

It is heartening that Professor Temkin shrinks from this final absurdity, but his position remains bizarre. We may imagine someone who witnesses an airplane crash in which several hundred people die. As he looks on the scene of disaster in shock, Professor Temkin consoles him: "At least there were no survivors." Temkin never confronts Parfit’s question: what is good about equality?

He does, however, raise an important issue. He asks why we find the Levelling Down Objection effective. The strength of the objection, he thinks, lies in the fact that the unequal state of affairs makes no one worse off. What then can be wrong with it? But do not supporters of the objection here rely on an unexamined assumption?

"At the heart of the Levelling Down Objection," Temkin says, "is a position I refer to as the Slogan: One situation cannot be worse (or better) than another if there is no one for whom it is worse (or better)" (p. 132, emphasis omitted). Temkin contends that the Slogan is by no means so plausible as it first appears. It is not absurd—it may even be true—that it is intrinsically good that criminals receive retributive punishment. Yet who is made better off by their punishment? Certainly not the criminals: who then? Yet retributive punishment cannot be dismissed out of hand. Thus, Temkin concludes, the Slogan should be rejected and with it, the Levelling Down Objection. 

Temkin’s conclusion relies on an unsupported premise. He rightly thinks that the Slogan can be challenged; but he fails to show that the force of the Levelling Down Objection depends on it. If the Slogan is rejected, a state of affairs can sometimes be worse than another without being worse for someone: but this does not tell us why equality is intrinsically good. Why is a state of affairs where all are blind better in any respect than one in which only some are blind? To reject the Slogan does not answer this question.

Parfit’s Levelling Down Objection seems to me fatal to egalitarianism, but several of the other contributors also raise points that classical liberals will find valuable.1 I am glad in particular to note some excellent remarks in Thomas Nagel’s "Equality." In another review in this issue, I have been less than welcoming to his The Myth of Ownership; but he is a philosopher of genuine distinction. In "Equality," he is in characteristic good form. 

He lends strong support to the libertarian view that there cannot be welfare rights. "Rights . . . give every person a limited veto on how others may treat him. This kind of unanimity condition is possible only for rights that limit what one person may do to another. There cannot in this sense be rights to have certain things—a right to medical care, or to a decent standard of living, or even a right to life" (p. 67).

Professor Nagel has not embraced the free market—far from it. But he recognizes that the egalitarian policies he favors demand another sort of moral theory than a rights-based one: "The language of rights is sometimes used . . . to indicate the priority of more urgent over less urgent human needs, and this is essentially an egalitarian principle"2 (p. 67; the context makes clear that Nagel rejects this usage).

But are we not here insisting on the importance of a mere matter of definition? Why should we care whether claims to equality or welfare are termed "rights"? The value of Nagel’s point, as it seems to me, is that many philosophers find a morality of rights attractive, but wish to fit welfare claims within this framework. Nagel shows that this cannot be done, and he thus gives us a useful argument against Alan Gewirth and other philosophers who defend this position.

My favorite Marxist, G.A. Cohen, strikes at the heart of the most influential contemporary egalitarian view, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, in his selection, "The Pareto Argument for Inequality." Rawls’s notorious "difference principle" is egalitarian; but, at least in part, Rawls has parried the force of the Levelling Down Objection. By the terms of the difference principle, inequalities that help the worst off are morally permissible. Why insist on complete equality, when the poor will be better off without it?

The difference principle does not altogether escape Parfit’s challenge. Suppose that some group in society other than the worst off can benefit from inequality, without harming anyone else. Should this sort of inequality be allowed? The difference principle does not justify it, but why should it be forbidden?3

Even if Rawls does not altogether escape the objection, his theory seems much more plausible than strict egalitarianism. But, Cohen inquires, can it be called an egalitarian theory at all? According to Rawls, inequalities can benefit the worst off through their incentive effects. If people can increase their wealth or income beyond the norm, they will produce more; and part of the increase can be taxed away to help the poor. 

Cohen claims that true egalitarians should not respond to incentives. If people genuinely believe in equality, they will work just as hard for the good of society as they will for their own advantage. "[D]eparture from equality is necessary only if and because talented people do not adjust their behaviour to the demands of the conception of justice required by the grounds given for starting with equality" (p. 176). In essence, egalitarians cannot have it both ways: if equality is morally mandated, it cannot be confined, as Rawls attempts, to the fundamental institutions of society. It must be applied at the personal level as well. 

Rawls will no doubt answer that Cohen has ignored the realities of human nature. Would not the "strains of commitment" be excessive under the system Cohen imagines? If people worked as hard without incentives as with them, well and good; but do we not know that this is impossible? This response seems to me perfectly adequate as far as it goes, but it does not meet Cohen’s argument.

Cohen thinks that egalitarians stand committed to a standard of personal behavior, as well as to a structure of social institutions. If they cannot live according to this standard, this hardly shows, as Rawls imagines, that we can construct a less demanding egalitarian position. Instead, it shows that equality is an unworkable principle. 

In sum, The Ideal of Equality offers convincing reasons against the very "ideal" the contributors to the book wish to support. I suspect that this result is not altogether to their liking: so much the better. 

1Parfit himself does not think his example proves this much. He states of the Levelling Down Objection: "This objection seems to me to have great force, but is not, I think, decisive" (p. 115). He does not explain why it is not.

2Parfit shows in convincing fashion that, contrary to Nagel, priority for the worst off differs from egalitarianism; but we cannot pursue the matter here.


3It is controversial whether Rawls’s theory in fact forbids these inequalities.



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