Inequality is back in the public discourse, due in part, to the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty, and the recent realization by Republicans that they might actually have to start representing some interests of persons other than wealthy white men if they want to keep representing the wealthy white man, and save him from the threat of extinction posed by the Obama administration. As of late, these two causes have intersected, with prominent Republican voices intoning that Johnson’s war on poverty has failed, and that it is time to treat the inequality program with methods other than welfare. While “other than welfare” might imply an alternative positive method (positive in the philosophical sense of the presence of doing something), their solution is merely negative: (both in the philosophical sense of the absence of doing something and the sense of being pessimistic) cut welfare completely.
The idea seems to be that the state should treat all persons equally, and that this will put the incentive on agents to pursue the good for themselves and not be “takers”, and consequently, those who fail to achieve goodness for themselves are responsible for their shortcomings in economic resources and welfare (welfare in the economic sense of metrics of well-being).
In his frequently anthologized paper, Equality and Priority, Derek Parfit notes that this might be classified as the deontological reading of the value of equality, wherein equality is morally valuable in treating agents in a certain way that is constitutive of them being treated equally in a morally valuable way. This view of equality is opposed to the other reading of the value of equality, that being teleological equality, wherein equality is morally valuable when agents are treated in such appropriate fashions as to end up equal in welfare or resources. Parfit’s intention is to show that neither view of equality sufficiently addresses the underlying intuition of what we think we value about equality, and as these two readings of equality are exhaustive of the distinctions of equality, we must turn to another principle to satisfy this intuition: giving priority to those that are the worst off in society (prioritarianism). Nevertheless, the paper also serves the purpose of showing that insofar as we are interested in equality we are interested in deontological and not teleological equality. Modern Republicans posit a version of deontological equality, so where is it that they go wrong?
The reason for the plausibility of deontological egalitarianism simpliciter and implausibility of Republican deontological egalitarianism is due to the simple fact that in order for deontological egalitarianism to satisfy the intuitions for which we desire equality, the society must have always followed this deontological idea. The simple fact is that the United States has never followed this deontological model, so that to impose it now would not be to treat persons equally. It’s a fascinating paradox: to treat persons equally (all of a sudden) is to treat them unequally. This is the flaw of Republican egalitarianism; it is a “starting-gate” version of egalitarianism that treats all persons equally after a starting point, but the fact of the matter is that if persons had been treated unequally before the starting point, then even if they are treated equally after that starting point, they are not equal in way that is morally significant.
This is where we see the need to merge our deontological egalitarianism with teleological egalitarianism, in practice. In theory deontology should be sufficient for meeting our egalitarian concerns, but in practice, what we see is a need to use redistribution to meet demands of equality that cannot be met by deontology alone. What this reveals to us, if we are being honest, is that we are concerned about the outcomes of policies of the polity as they affect us, not just that those policies apply to all members of society. In theory, and perhaps in practice if the starting point was the originating point of a society, deontology would result in the sorts of equal outcomes that we do value, and unequal outcomes would be fair due to the deontological practices of the polity. But in the political reality in which we find ourselves, one of deeply integrated and systemic racism and sexism due to the lack of implementation of deontological egalitarianism in the past, we find that the sudden implementation of deontological egalitarianism does not provide the sorts of equal or fair outcomes that we deem necessary for a just society.
What this might suggest is the inadequacy of egalitarian theory in political philosophy to express the real intuitions that we have of justice as they apply to modern society. Perhaps political philosophy has become too idealized and abstract to meet the need to craft theories tailored to our political realities. I think this conclusion would be too hasty; after all, philosophers such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, G.A. Cohen, Richard Arneson, Elizabeth Anderson, and Amartya Sen have all attempted to create theories that attempt to put our concerns for deontological egalitarianism into place with the facts.
I think the correct conclusion to draw from the preceding notes is that modern Republicans are living in a fantasy world divorced from the brute fact of the injustice that permeates our society. Their stringent commitment to their ideology compels them to commit themselves to a vague egalitarian theory that might work well in theory, but which we can clearly see is unjust in practice. So perhaps it is not a lie for the Republicans to say that they do care about equality. That very well might be true. The problem is that while Republicans might care about the theory of equality, they still do not care about the real people who are not wealthy white men.