November 11, 2004

Why Is Equality Good?

An old question, and one for which there are many extremely sophisticated, intelligent answers.

Over at Pandagon, Jesse Taylor asks, “What does the Democratic Party stand for?” It’s being asked a lot this week. It’s important not to make too much of blog-comment threads, but I think this is one case where the crazy-quilt hubbub of contradictory answers that Jesse has received is probably pretty closely matched to the reality of the situation.

Some of the answers Jesse receives seem to me to be useful but lacking in some important respect. Some suggest the Democrats stand for realism, or truthfulness, or common sense. I think one could build on that possibility, but it’s also a somewhat transitory foundation that has political legs only as long as the Republicans appear unrealistic, untruthful or lacking in common sense. Not to mention the kind of problems I’ve already discussed here, that particular kinds or flavors of competency, intelligence and experience may be things which are valued in a political leader only by some of the voting population.

One other consistent answer that pops up a lot in that thread, and is echoed at many left-liberal blogs this week, is that the Democrats stand for equality. My problem, as I say in that thread, is that I strongly suspect that many of the people who say that don’t really know what they mean by it, and that at least some of those who do know what they mean are defending the idea of equality from radically different directions.

Are we talking about equality of opportunity, which is basically a complement to meritocratic visions of social hierarchy? Equality of opportunity, strictly speaking, is indifferent to unequal results as long as it is confident that inequality does not derive from unfair initial conditions. Now as it turns out, ensuring equal starting conditions in life for all citizens in a society that has a long history of enforced inequality is clearly a very difficult task, and grows steadily more difficult the shorter the time-frame in which a remedy is sought. If you’re content to work incrementally towards equality of opportunity, or think that removing statutory or structural barriers to equality of opportunity will naturally produce a slow drift towards achieving such equality, then you may not see the need for dramatic interventionary policy that may create short-term inequalities in order to produce long-term equalities. If you think that it’s unfair to ask people presently alive to endure the legacy of unequal opportunity and that immediate and dramatic remedies are necessary, you may require strong interventions.

But the important point is, if this is your idea of “equality”, you are not necessarily going to object to the mere existence of social inequality—in fact, you may expect it and even welcome it as long as you’re assured it comes from the natural talents and efforts of individuals, whatever "natural" might mean.

Contrast that with ideas about equality that seek to lessen the distance between the richest and poorest ends of the social spectrum. There are dramatically different reasons to support this vision of equality: you might argue it is pragmatically good as it makes society more stable. You might argue that it is culturally good as extreme wealth or poverty are unseemly or aesthetically displeasing in some respect. You might argue that it is a moral obligation, that extreme poverty and extreme wealth are morally unacceptable in a just society. Here the emphasis is less meritocratic, and more with constraining two possible social outcomes through state intervention—providing a subsidy to the poorest end of the spectrum and a hugely disproportional tax at the upper end whose express purpose is not revenue for the state but the reduction of extreme wealth for the sake of promoting equality.

Or contrast that with much more rigorous ideas about egalitarianism, that promote approximate economic and social equivalency between members of communities or whole societies. Again, there’s a diversity of underlying ideas that might support such a vision, ranging from certain kinds of practical ideas about social stability to certain kinds of moral commandments, though I think any really rigorous argument here is limited either to coherent bodies of analytic and philosophical thought like Marxism or to certain kinds of religious moralities that derive their authority from reference to the will of the divine or some absolute.

I would submit that all of these ideas, and others less well conceptualized, are bouncing around in a poorly digested state within contemporary invocations of the importance of equality by the Democratic base. Some Democratic leaders clearly favor the meritocratic conception of equality, and few party officials or leaders are friendly to strongly egalitarian social philosophies, but the voting base has a range of openness to all of them. Moreover, at least some of those in that base tend to bristle strongly when the commitment to equality is challenged or questioned, and tend to avoid calls to reflectively re-examine the concept and re-articulate its worth or importance. It’s taken as a given by many, that equality (of one or more kinds) is self-evidently a good thing.

Certainly I've seen some of this in the campaign for a living wage at Swarthmore: it's hard to even open a conversation with some of its advocates about why it would be a good thing if there was less inequality among the employees of the college. That's taken as being so much an unquestioned given that it doesn't need to be defended as such--though the implications of the argument aren't always followed--if we dissent from the labor market for low-wage employees, why do we accept its dictates elsewhere?. Some of the advocates have at least documented the concrete social problems and suffering that results from making less than what they have defined as a living wage, so I don't want to make my complaint too broadly. But even at that level, there are deeper questions whose answers are assumed: why should we care if some people suffer? I grant that you don't want to have to deal with questions that deep every single time you want to make concrete policy recommendations, but you at least need to find out if most of the advocates of a particular initiative aimed at inequality have some kind of reasonable, consistent, coherent answer to that question rather than a purely reactive, unarticulated assumption about it.

I’m sometimes mystified by colleagues or friends who start from the premise that inequality is the first and last concern of political life, because I don’t hear in their ardent commitment any systematic or worked-out idea about the reasons why equality is a good thing or ought to be central political theme that sustains Democratic voters. I hear people who basically are talking about meritocratic equality talking in seeming agreement with people who want to produce a distribution of wealth that favors the middle without either person recognizing that their visions may actually be antagonistic. I hear people who argue that equality is an absolute moral obligation, but then I either don’t understand the deeper sources and wider extent of the morality to which they allude or I’m mystified by the seeming gap between their own moral behavior and this moral obligation that they lay on society as a whole.

I see policy objectives that are held dearly by most of the Democratic base because of those objectives’ service to equality that really ought to vary hugely depending on which kind of equality they supposedly service. Affirmative action that is seen narrowly as a meritocratic correction to inequality of opportunity is a very different thing from affirmative action that is aimed at the permanent suppression of overly unequal life results through the maintenance of idealized diversity within institutions. The first kind of program has at least a potential future date at which it would be deemed irrelevant or obsolete; the second does not.

Most importantly, if this is the foundational value of the Democratic Party, I see one version where it might indeed sustain the party’s pursuit of electoral success—and other versions that would doom it to being a minority party forever. Meritocratic ideas about equality of opportunity might appeal to many Americans; ideas about blunting both ends of the social spectrum in favor the middle perhaps less so, particularly those that aim at the suppression of extreme wealth. Strong egalitarianism I think is even less appealing to many American voters.

That the Democrats need a solid foundational narrative and identity as a party seems unquestionable to me, even if they don’t want to pursue the more extreme kinds of reorganization I have elsewhere advocated. If it’s to be equality, then there’s some preparatory work to be done in advance: which kind of equality, and why do we believe in it?