Issue #5: 'self'

Piketty: unequal selves

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by New Philosopher on November 17, 2014

By Jeremy Moss, artwork by Michael Leunig

Thomas Piketty’s recent work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, provides disturbing evidence about the increasing inequality of income and wealth between and within nations. Piketty claims that except for a brief period after World War II, inequality of income and wealth has typically been substantial, and may continue to grow in the immediate future.

Piketty’s work provides a rich empirical detail of the ways in which inequality has increased in terms of income and wealth and we should not underestimate the importance of this kind of contribution. Yet, a focus on inequality of income and wealth also raises questions concerning what type of inequality between people and society we should care about, and why?

For example, it is not inequalities of income and wealth per se that should matter to us, but their effects. Companies or individuals who have vastly superior wealth to others may be able to dictate conditions of employment to others, influence the political process, set social agendas, or take advantage of scarce opportunities or resources that are unavailable to others. Inequality of wealth and income can also lead to better health and educational outcomes for the wealthy.

All of these things are why we care about inequality. But we also care about inequality because of its connection with fairness. For instance, when we deliberate about people having a moral claim to a fair share of a resource or opportunity this often implies an equal distribution.

Some people make this kind of argument in relation to the distribution of rights to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Since no one owns the atmosphere and we all need to use it to emit GHGs, fairness demands that we all have an equal claim to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink – that is, we all have an equal right to emit GHGs into the atmosphere. To argue that some of us have a right to a greater share would require us to produce a special reason why we should be treated differently.

Similarly, for certain opportunities – applying for a job or going to court – fair procedures require that everyone has an equal chance to present their case. Determining what a fair share is requires that we compare them to other people’s shares, and without a further principle to regulate distribution, this implies an equal division. So inequality can be unjust both because it has bad effects and because it is unfair in certain circumstances.

One of the reasons that economists and others concern themselves with income and wealth is that it is both easier to measure and can be divided. It can also be a good proxy for other inequalities such as undue political influence. Yet talking of inequality of income and wealth can make it sound as though equality is only concerned with easily divisible goods. What we should really care about is what we are able to do with the resources available to us; it is in part the effects of income and wealth that matter. Having equal income matters less than being able to move about equally well, and that, for some may require extra resources. For example, achieving equal mobility for those who have difficulty walking will require better designed public and private spaces as well as a range of aids. All this is not the same as equal wealth.

Similarly, giving children an equally good education is not the same as equal income and wealth. It will require that we spend more on some than on others to overcome disadvantages. While it is true that gross inequalities of wealth and income will cut against this aim, it is important to be aware that what we really care about is another type of inequality. In this case, what we care about is not how much money someone has, but what that money does – what Indian economist Amartya Sen and others have called our capabilities to do and be various important things, such as being educated or mobile.

What Piketty and others who work on inequality demonstrate is that we ought to care about substantial kinds of inequalities (not just formal ones) that impede the living of good lives. Yet, important though income and wealth are for understanding the barriers to achieving equality, what really matters is the effects of these inequalities and the unfairness of many kinds of unequal divisions. Understanding the goods and relations in which we should be equal is a broader task than simply removing inequalities of wealth.

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