Absolute improvement

Fernando Teson writes:

Yet, outside the rarified circles of political philosophy journals, I haven’t heard many folks ask two other important questions about the President’s approach.  Yet these questions are, to me, obvious.

First, why should reducing income equality be a worthy goal? If we are concerned with the poor, then we should focus (as Rawls famously does) in improving their lot in absolute terms, regardless of the effect of such improvement on the gap between them and the rich. Again, this is common currency in academic circles, but I don’t hear anyone in our public debate making the point.

One reason why the focus is not on improving the absolute income of the poor is that income is not the sole objective of those at the bottom.

To make a point I have often made before, if someone’s aim is to attract a mate, a slight increase in absolute income will not assist low-status males in achieving this objective if massive increases at the top allow high-status males to dominate the mating market (or to cause high-status women to price themselves too high).

If we accept that people have objectives beyond absolute income, the range of policy considerations becomes more interesting. Take prohibitions against polygamy, whose primary beneficiary (particularly before the emergence of the welfare state) was low-status males. Compulsory child-support payments reduce the benefits for a woman of partnering with a low-status male. The terms of the policy debate about inequality do not have to be primarily about income.

That is not to say that increasing absolute income does not matter. It does. It is just that income inequality plays out in other spheres that people care about – and increasing absolute income provides no guarantee of addressing those.

2 comments

  1. Yes, but unlike the moral argument that society owes everyone an equal opportunity to compete, equal treatment under law, and a certain level of material safety net  – we as a society have no moral requirement to help every person achieve their mating or status objectives.  This is the essence of a free society:  we are each on our own as to what we make of the educational and economic opportunities provided to us.

    Obama and the Left’s focus on income equality is not about helping everyone up.  It is about making everyone equal by everyone being poor and reliant on the state.  A truly free society is one where people have different outcomes in life, because people have different talents and make different choices.  And that is good.

    1. I think liberals would respond that people do not have an equal opportunity to compete (e.g. inferior public schools in inner cities) and do not have a material safety net (e.g. can’t afford healthcare), and that reducing income inequality is the best way to solve these problems. Another thing they might say is that income inequality leads to a corrosive influence of money in politics, where the wealthy can buy political power and then use the political power to get themselves more money and then use the money to buy more power, etc. I think the idea that liberals want to even out income merely because they care about some nebulous notion of “equality” is a straw man. Nobody wants to spread the nation’s wealth for its own sake, and nobody wants to spread it until we’re all equal. I bet that most people on the left will say that the extreme income inequality we now have (which is much larger than previous decades) is not necessarily bad in and of itself, but is bad because it is symptomatic of deeper problems.

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