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Anthony de Jasay

The Millstones of Egalitarianism, Part II. Ropemanship, or the Morality of Distributions

Anthony de Jasay*

This article is Part II of a two-part series.

4. A Presumption of Inequality
There may be changes in the distribution of status, wealth and income that are made in Heaven in the sense of being better for some and worse for none, but they must be hard to find. Arguably, if they were easy to find, they would have been made before now by those closest to them and best able to benefit from the gain they promise. In any event, the great and never-ending debate about how politics should shape society has its focus on the immense variety of possible distributive changes in which some gain but others lose (including the cases where the losers lose not absolutely, but only relatively to the gainers, though they are good reasons for keeping such changes firmly out of the argument).

The net balance of the gainers' gains over the losers' losses is the product of the now discredited aggregation of individual utilities. For most modern thinkers, it is a meaningless operation and must be avoided. But it is a deeply rooted habit of everyday political discourse and as such, needs to be met head on.

What sort of distribution promises a greater semblance of a net aggregate gain?

Economic facts of life generate inequalities due mainly to human endowments being unequal (Part I, Section 1.) Inequalities cause growth and vice versa because they favour capital accumulation. The conclusion strongly suggests itself that inequality is the best or perhaps the only way out of mass poverty, while an equal distribution would leave everybody permanently in the same poverty they suffer at present.

This line of reasoning used to be opposed by "scientific" socialism which claimed that a rationally planned economy with "production for needs, not for profit" performs better. This claim is now almost stone dead, but not quite: Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has confidently declared that the British financial services industry was not "socially useful". All in all, however, the emphasis of egalitarian advocacy has clearly shifted to modern "happiness economics". One strand in the happiness-maximiser recipe is that since the success of others makes the unsuccessful unhappy (and this they say so themselves), success should be discouraged by fiscal means. A similar line, though relying not on the say-so of the unhappy but on empirical data, finds that unequal societies have a worse record on life expectancy, cancer, teenage pregnancy and other ills than equal ones. Much of the empirical evidence has lately come to be contested. In any case, the symptoms of ill health, short life and related miseries can be just as well imputed to the victims being poor as to the others being richer than the poor.

In sum, in terms of sheer money and the lifting of great masses out of chronic poverty, unequal distributions probably score better. However, the political facts of life (Part I, Section 3) are like millstones hung around their neck, a handicap that irons out the inequalities on which much of their performance depends. Egalitarian distributions, used to the millstones, may or may not score better in terms of "total utility" or happiness, but there is no earthly way of telling by any objective measure whether this is so or not. More unequal societies may resemble live streams with some white water here and there. More equal ones look more like stale, lukewarm ponds. Where the fish are happier depends on the kind of fish. In terms of human happiness, we do not have the answers and must stay agnostic. Failing a judgment on happiness, we can only fall back on a general presumption in favour of unequal distributions that come about when no millstones are hung on them, no deliberate political attempts to change them.

5. Equality Posing as a Moral Imperative

Happiness-based arguments for equality are defeated by their own inherent subjectivity, their utter lack of objective proof, a lack that provokes an agnostic reaction and is defeated by it. The way out for egalitarianism has been, and to some extent remains, the abandonment of the instrumental idea of equality. Since the latter cannot be proven to be a utility-maximiser, an instrument that best helps to achieve the final end of happiness, wellbeing, the perfect life or kindred ideals, a more radical defence must be found for it. It must be raised out of its humble instrumental role and promoted to the rank of moral imperative instead.

Doing so is essentially a matter of saying-so, an assertion that depends for its acceptance on repetition and a measure of plausibility.

Perhaps the most popular of these claims is that God has created all men equal. This is tautologically true in that all men are men, (and all women are women) hence in that particular respect they are all equal. However, since (except for identical twins) they are in literally countless other respects unequal, the claim is simply absurd. A somewhat similar assertion is that all men are owed, or have "right", to equal respect and concern. Since as a matter of an elementary fact of life we all respect some people, are indifferent to many and feel downright contempt for a few, and since we feel and show more concern for next-of-kin and friends than distant Hottentots, this assertion is also implausible. Finally, it has been strongly affirmed that since talents and other personal endowments are, "morally arbitrary" (to use John Rawls' phrase), it would be unfair to profit from their consequences; unequal consequences, such as unequal success or failure in life, cannot be morally defended. However, such consequences are not in need of being morally defended except perhaps if some moral blame attached to their causes—a condition that talents and character do not suffer from. The claim that they are unfair is preposterous.

6. The Indian Rope Trick

An assertion or affirmation has no intrinsic credibility except accessorily to the extent that the trust worthiness of the attestant or the nature of the thing affirmed lends it some degree of plausibility. In Section 5 above, I briefly reviewed the most prominent affirmations that equality is a moral imperative, and found them wholly devoid of verisimilitude. Though they do have some emotional appeal, they lack the content that would permit their inductive or deductive development into a moral rule. I cannot, of course, be sure that no other, hitherto unthought-of or at least to me unknown affirmations of equality exists that, contrary to the examples used in Section 5, could serve as moral imperatives. However, this seems to me unlikely. Subject to proof of the opposite, I will treat the rhetorical approach to equality as fruitless.

However, there is an alternative approach that is neither rhetorical nor logical and that has proved to be gloriously fruitful. For easy reference, I will call it ropemanship. One form of ropemanship might be described as the finding of a fastener by which an object that will not fly is tied to one that will, and that will lift it off into a higher sphere.

There are pairs of conceptually related words where the first word in the pair is self-evidently superior, stronger, better or otherwise preferable. Good and bad make such a pair, just and unjust another. Any argument that good is indeed better than bad, or just is indeed preferable to unjust, would be fatuous and redundant. Let us call these pairs hierarchical. For purposes of ropemanship, they will fly.

A different type of pairs is non-hierarchical; one member of the pair is superior or inferior to the other, depending entirely on the context. Long and short, warm or cold are such pairs, and so is equal and unequal. It is the merits of the case that determines whether equality is superior, more conducive to aggregate happiness and morally ordained than inequality, or whether the ranking goes the other way round. Intrinsically, however, equality does not rank self-evidently higher than inequality. Trying to show that it does leads to a never-ending argument in which the last word recedes into boundless emptiness.

Justice, of course, always ranks above injustice. It suffices to create the word "social justice" to perform ropemanship. Social justice for some must be like justice, for the words resemble each others, hence it must be self-evidently better than social injustice. However, while justice is precisely defined by existing rules of justice, and injustice by the breach of these rules, "social" justice has no ascertainable rules. Nor can social injustice be easily recognised as a breach of relevant rules. (To substitute "fairness" for "justice" is merely stating the same conundrum at one remove, without solving it).

This embarrassing vacuity is covered up by the relatively new but widespread linguistic abuse of treating "social justice" and "equality" as practically closely connected, "much the same thing."

Since we do not know what else "social" justice might possibly mean, it is easy enough to accept that it must mean a sort of equality. Inequality, by implication, must mean social injustice.

Perhaps the supreme feat of ropemanship is the Indian Rope Trick in which the fakir throws a rope in the air and climbs up along it to the sky. The social philosopher who fastens equality that will not fly, to the rope of "social" justice that will take it to the moral stratosphere, is just as good an illusionist as the wonderful fakir.


* Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.
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