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December 27, 2004

Egalitarian scholarship

David Schmidtz: December 27, 2004

So, I'm on the list on contributors, and haven't contributed anything yet, although I've been reading posts with interest, often finding them genuinely edifying.  Anyway, David V is prodding me, so here's something I've been thinking about for a while.  It's the first time I've ever contributed anything at all to any kind of blog.  I welcome your corrections, or simply reactions. 

Recent developments in egalitarian scholarship are promising in two ways.  First, egalitarians like Michael Walzer, Iris Marion Young, and Elizabeth Anderson seem to be regrouping under the banner of an egalitarianism that has roots in a 19th century rebellion against oppression, when egalitarianism was a genuinely liberal movement, allied with 19th century utilitarianism in opposing authoritarian aristocracy.  Where this first development recalls the civil libertarianism of 19th century classical liberals and of civil rights leaders of the 1960s, a second development in egalitarian scholarship recalls the humanitarian element of those same movements.  What I have in mind is that egalitarians like Richard Arneson are reformulating egalitarianism in such a way that it has a point that can be appreciated even by those who do not already subscribe to a radically egalitarian ideology.  “The point of equality I would say is to improve people’s life prospects, tilting in favor of those who are worse off, and in favor of those who have done as well as could reasonably be expected with the cards that fate has dealt them.”   This new egalitarianism is not the revolt against economic mobility (sometimes deceptively packaged as an empirical thesis that upward mobility is a myth) that egalitarianism seemed to become for a while in the mid-20th century.
Egalitarianism cannot survive inspection as a proposal for forcibly maintaining a static pattern, but that is not what liberal egalitarianism was.  Societies whose members do not grow and change and distinguish themselves do not survive; a workable egalitarianism makes room for growth and change.  There is room, though, within a genuinely liberal theory of justice, for egalitarianism focused on improving (not leveling) general life chances.   Likewise, there is room for egalitarianism focused on proportional justice—on things like equal pay for equal work.  Societies that succumb to a temptation to experiment with more dictatorial forms of equality must soon either abandon those experiments or be suffocated by them.

When the topic is oppression, it becomes critical to be aware of ways in which society is not a zero-sum game.  To fight oppression in a nonoppressive way, we must aim for gains in freedom from oppression that come not at someone else’s expense (that do not merely shift the target of oppression to classes who “cannot reasonably complain”) but that are instead universally liberating.  This will of course seem utopian to those (and there are some) who think the only way to win is to make other people lose. 

on equality and meritocracy

David Schmidtz: December 27, 2004

When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he was dreaming of a world where his children could count on equal treatment, not equal shares. He was dreaming of the kind of equality that is not contrary to meritocracy but is instead meritocracy’s foundation. 

Very roughly, a regime is meritocratic to the extent that people are judged on the merits of their performance. A meritocracy will satisfy a principle of “equal pay for equal work.” Rewards will track performance, at least in the long run.  A pure meritocracy is hard to imagine, but any regime is likely to have meritocratic elements.  A corporation is meritocratic as it ties promotions to performance, and departs from meritocracy as it ties promotions to seniority. Note: no one needs to intend that rewards track performance.  While a culture of meritocracy is often partially a product of deliberate design, a corporation (or especially, a whole society) can be meritocratic to a degree without anyone having decided to make it so.

Paying us what our work is worth may seem like a paradigm of fairness, but some philosophers see conflict between equality and meritocracy.  Norman Daniels says many “proponents of meritocracy have been so concerned with combating the lesser evil of non-meritocratic job placement that they have left unchallenged the greater evil of highly inegalitarian reward schedules.  One suspects that an elitist infatuation for such reward schedules lurks behind their ardor for meritocratic job placement.”   

Such remarks are, if not typical, at least not unusual in the academy, but liberalism has an older, populist tradition that deployed the concept of meritocracy against hereditary aristocracy. Even the socialist tradition once was partly a meritocratic reaction to a social hierarchy that prevented workers from earning fair wages. Contra Daniels, meritocratic liberalism fought against elitism, not for it. Liberalism won, and indeed won so decisively that today we hardly remember that a battle had to be fought. In the western world today, no one expects us to bow. No matter how rich or poor we are, the proper way for us to introduce ourselves is with a handshake, which implies that we are meeting as equals. Mundane though that fact is, the very fact that it is so mundane—that we take it for granted—is inspiring.

Today, we see people as commanding equal respect qua citizen or qua human being, yet we need not and do not pretend that every auto mechanic (for example) is equally competent and equally honest. We know perfectly well that auto mechanics do not command equal respect in every respect. We prefer to do business with people who are good at what they do. There would be something wrong with us if we did not. In everyday life, egalitarians intuitively grasp that genuine respect has meritocratic elements, and thus to some extent tracks how we distinguish ourselves as we develop our differing potentials in different ways.

WHAT EQUALITY IS FOR: Suppose we have a certain moral worth, and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more or less worthy. If this were true, then we might turn out to be of equal worth. Now suppose instead that, along some dimensions, our moral worth can be affected by our choices. In that case, it is unlikely there ever will be a time when we are all of equal worth along those dimensions. Thus, only a cartoon form of egalitarianism would presume all of us are equally worthy along all dimensions.

What is the true point of the liberal ideal of political equality? Surely not to stop us from becoming more worthy along dimensions where our worth can be affected by our choices, but to facilitate our becoming more worthy.

Liberal political equality is not premised on the absurd hope that, under ideal conditions, we all turn out to be equally worthy. It presupposes only a classically liberal optimism regarding the kind of society that results from giving people (all people, so far as this is realistically feasible) a chance to choose worthy ways of life. We do not see people’s different contributions as equally valuable, but that was never the point of equal opportunity, and never could be. Why not? Because we do not see even our own contributions as equally valuable, let alone everyone’s. It matters to us whether we achieve more rather than less. If we invent something, we think it matters whether it actually works, and we expect it to matter to our customers too.

Traditional liberals wanted people—all people—to be as free as possible to pursue their dreams. Accordingly, the equal opportunity of liberal tradition put the emphasis on improving opportunities, not equalizing them. The ideal of “equal pay for equal work,” within the tradition from which that ideal emerged, had more in common with meritocracy, and with the equal respect embodied by the concept of meritocracy, than with equal shares per se.

There has been much debate within the academy over what should be equalized. There are hardly any vocal meritocrats in the academy. (Although I would not lump meritocrats together with conservatives, this reminds me of Elizabeth Anderson's note a while ago about how rare vocal conservatives are in the academy.) Anyway, if meritocrats were to come forward, they would find they disagreed among themselves in the same way egalitarians do. After all, what are meritocratic rewards supposed to track? Like equality, merit has numerous dimensions: how long people work, how hard people work, how skillfully people work, how much training people need to do the work, how much people are contributing to society, and so on.

on blogosphere manners

David Schmidtz: December 27, 2004

I have a slightly different take on the mud-slinging aspect that some of us have been lamenting. When I'm dealing with people I know, especially face to face, they're almost alway civil, supportive, encouraging, and so on. More to the point, they're discrete. In the blog universe, it's a different crowd and a different set of rules, so one gets an altogether different kind of feedback, in some cases altogether unguarded. And it's all voluntary. We talk only when we want, and people listen only when they want. Pretty cool, really.