In France at the moment we have the legislative elections. President Macron has already been returned to power, but the question now is will he command a majority in their legislature as well and so be able to make the changes to the law he considers are necessary? Well, not if Monsieur Mélanchon has anything to do with it.

He is someone, rather to the left of Jeremy Corbyn, whose candidates came a very close second in the first round of the current elections. I say ‘his candidates’, but in fact candidates from a coalition of left wing parties. Although he has not himself stood as a candidate, he is hoping that, with success in the second round he can force himself upon Monsieur Macron as his Prime Minister. Monsieur Macron’s response translates something along the lines of ‘over my dead body’!

Monsieur Mélanchon is, after all, in favour Frexit and of withdrawing from NATO. So then quite the revolutionary. He is also in favour of more equality. He wishes to raise pensions, freeze prices of ‘essential goods’, have wage increases in the public sector and introduce a 100% inheritance tax on that part of any estate exceeding a value 12 million euros. In other words, he is not a great believer in capitalism and the inequalities it produces.

Now I think that most people would nod their heads if asked whether equality matters, although perhaps their support for it would fray a little when looked at in more detail. After all, we think that our own efforts should be adequately rewarded and so most people would think more in terms of equality of opportunity rather than outcome. Neither do I think that many people would voluntarily give away an inheritance, large or small, received from their parents. They would say that it is family money for which their parents had worked. Paying a rate of tax of 100% is certainly giving it away.

And, strangely, although being disadvantaged can produce serious health and economic problems, the solution is not necessarily more equality. Consider, for example, the fact that men in the United States currently enjoy double the life-expectancy of men in Malawi. Surely an inequality of this magnitude cries out to be remedied? But is it the inequality which is the problem? If so, then the situation could be improved by decreasing male life expectancy in the US. Which is silly, because what we want is to maximise the life-chances, both for Americans and Malawians, not to equalise them.

So then we’re not using the right terms to describe what we think to be unacceptable. Indeed, using ‘’equal’ in any context other than arithmetic can prove to be quite problematic.

In 'Why Does Inequality Matter?' (2018), Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon examines cases like unequal life expectancies. He attempts to set out rules which should be followed in order to determine how we should act. Quite how successful he is in providing guidance of practical value we shall see.

For him, however, for inequalities to be objectionable, there has to be some form of relationship between the unequal parties. Is it wrong for one person to have twice as much of something – money, political power, life expectancy – than another? It depends upon what relationship those people have with each other. If both live in the United States, doing similar jobs, then possibly yes. If one lives on Earth and the other on Mars, then probably not.

John Rawls, Scanlon’s colleague at Harvard for many years, in his 'A Theory of Justice', argued that justice (I would use the word fairness, rather than justice - ‘justice’ to me implies the involvement of the courts) is the most important property of the political, social, and economic institutions and practices governing society – and that a society is just only to the extent to which it treats all of its members in a similar way based on an assumed social contract.

Scanlon focuses on equality, not justice, but nonetheless uses the idea of a social contract to establish what this requires: that a society must not be governed according to terms that any of its members could reasonably object to. So then lots of room for disagreement inherent in that concept before we even get to look at the rules themselves.

Scanlon raises a number of objections to inequality. The first is the objection coming from equal concern for its members. A society must ensure that each of its members enjoys certain benefits reasonably necessary in such a society, such as housing. Other benefits, such as swimming pools, can be provided at the society’s discretion. This again leaves a lot of room for disagreement: how do we distinguish between what is necessary and what is a luxury? Our ideas about these things have changed very much over the millennia - and even in the last few decades.

But if black people, for example,
suffer disproportionately  from homelessness, then the system has failed them twice: it has failed to respond to a basic need and it has done so because of their race. This denies that group benefits “on the basis of ‘Status inequality’ - resulting from a widely held view that certain facts about them, such as their race, gender, or religion, make them less entitled to those goods than others are”. Although most countries pay lip-service to non-discrimination, the very fact that such prejudices are widely held in certain countries makes it inherently unlikely that success would come from trying to persuade such people that the affected group did not in fact have those characteristics. It’s all very subjective.

There is then the problem of equality of opportunity. Most people object to inequality of opportunity, but differ as to what remedy this requires. For Scanlon, equality of opportunity requires two conditions - procedural fairness and substantive opportunity.

Procedural fairness is violated when some people cheat to obtain jobs or university places. A billionaire making a donation to get his daughter into a top university violates procedural fairness in just such a way.

Substantive opportunity is violated when people don’t have a realistic chance for equality of opportunity - for example, whenever “children from poor families do not have access to schools that would enable them to compete with children of the rich for good jobs, or for admission to universities”. But it is not just education. The way families live their lives is vitally important. How do we reconcile the responsibilities of parents and the state? Should the state take over parental responsibility from parents who are themselves disadvantaged by their own genes or upbringing or that of their predecessors? And how disadvantaged do they have to be?

The fourth of his objections to inequality is that of political fairness. Political fairness works similarly to equality of opportunity. It imposes a substantive condition: people ought not be denied a chance to have their voice heard simply because they cannot access the means of doing so (due to poverty, for example). It also imposes a procedural condition: people ought not to use illegitimate means (such as large campaign donations) to ensure their political interests are favoured. All fairly uncontroversial other than to the uber-rich.

His fifth objection, however, can be regarded as antithetical to democracy. “Inequalities can also be objectionable because they give some people an unacceptable degree of control over the lives of others”. But what is ‘unacceptable’?

Democracy gives very great control to the government over peoples’ lives. We may strongly disapprove of what a government is doing, but may be unable to have our way because we are in a minority. This problem is exacerbated when a country, such as the USA, is very much divided along party lines. One might argue therefore that democracy itself ‘gives people an unacceptable degree of control over the lives of others’. Can we say therefore that democracy is always, by definition, fit for purpose? Oh dear.

Scanlon’s sixth objection says: “An institution is unfair if it produces significant differences in income and wealth for which no sufficient reason can be given”. To justify an inequality, the reason for the difference must be such that “no member of society could reasonably object to it”. It could be for instance that those inequalities “are required in order for the economic system to function in a way that benefits all” – for example, by providing incentives that raise productivity.

In other words, unlike Monsieur Mélanchon, he approves of capitalism. So do I, but I’m not sure whether Professor Scanlon’s musings on inequality have in fact resulted in anything very useful. We are still left having to answer all the usual, all the hard questions, including whether democracy is actually the least bad of the political systems. Experts, eh?

Paul Buckingham

15 June 2022

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy