Sunday, January 27, 2013

Social vs Economic Equality

Philosophy is difficult. It is sometimes hard to know which views are correct, especially when opposing views are both persuasively articulated.

Sometimes, though, some views are just obviously wrong. Take, for example, Mickey Kaus's response to Matt Yglesias on immigration

Klaus argues that we should have restrictive immigration policies because he cares more about decreasing the levels of inequality of income that exists between Americans than about raising the well-being of foreigners. No, seriously; he writes, "I worry more about whether [Americans] can earn $12 an hour than I do whether Mexicans who may have made $2 an hour are able to come here and make $8 an hour."

You may in fact worry more about Americans than Mexicans, but that's because you're ethnocentric. It's not an argument in favor of your conclusion.

Let's assume that he's trying to move Americans from $8 an hour to $12 an hour. So the increase in pay is both greater for the Mexicans in absolute terms, in percentage terms, and because the Mexicans are coming from such a low baseline there are prioritarian reasons (reasons for helping those who are worst off) in favor of helping the Mexican. On the face of it, is seems clear that we have greater reasons to help the Mexican. It's hard for me to believe that he could write what he did, without much elaboration, and think it would be persuasive.

Yglesias was actually pretty generous in his response. Yglesias writes, "Mickey Kaus has an elaborate theory of social equality vs "Money Liberals" that I don't really understand." Well, I think I do understand it, it's just not an attractive theory.

For Kaus, Social Equality is more important than Money-Equality. Social Equality means that everyone within a given society (nation) should be (more or less) equal. Money Egalitarians instead think we should do our best to raise everyone's welfare (in terms of income), ideally so everyone reaches equality (or perhaps just a minimum baseline.) If making gains in money-equality comes at any cost to gains in a given country's social equality, we should favor social equality.

This really puts the cart before the horse. Now, to Kaus' credit, there are some bad social consequences to inequality, such as resentment and a loosening of social bonds. But I have always thought that the worst part about inequality is that many people are left badly off, and that all other negative effects warrant far less concern. (In fact, it's an interesting question to ask what objections there are to inequality, given there no one is left badly off, precisely because people being badly off is what is worst about inequality.) Kaus gives no reason to accept his apparently upside-down conclusion. Given that the people whose welfare Kaus is inclined to discount are foreign-born, it's hard to see what justifies favoring our own internal social cohesion other than discriminatory bias.

It's easy to see how this view falls apart. What if the rich of US decided to buy Florida, kick out all the poor people, and (legally) become their own country? Perhaps we could object to the transition process, but once New Florida becomes the richest new nation in the world, any imperative to redistribute the wealth from these New Floridians to the poorer people in Philadelphia disappears. What fantastic metaphysics nation states control!

Kaus says that social equality is much easier to achieve than money equality, because money equality means improving the lives of everyone in the world, whereas social equality is just the equalizing of incomes across nations. I'm not sure when the ease of success was ever a decisive reason for accepting a moral view. And does he really think that we ought to give up on the (admittedly difficult) goal of raising global living standards?

I find this view pretty offensive, almost not worth bringing up. But it is worth bringing up, for a couple reasons. One is that it's an example on non-consequential moral thought gone wrong. I think there are some considerations that count against total welfare considerations (we shouldn't enslave Mexico even if it would improve the living conditions of the rest of the world) but total welfare considerations are still very important. Second, I think this kind of thinking is implicit in many people's unreflective moral views, and that people often unduly privilege their own group or tribe. Part of the importance of reflecting on our moral reasons is to discover these biases and fight against them.

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