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Inequality has been at the forefront of the public consciousness for a while now, and for good reason. Within the last few weeks it has emerged that top pay in the UK last year rose six times faster than the earnings of the average worker, which failed even to keep pace with inflation. That eight men control as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet is such a commonly-cited statistic that we almost cease to be shocked by it.

Income and wealth inequality are useful means of gauging the growing distance between rich and poor, but they only tell part of the story, and if we are to right the obvious wrongs with the way resources are distributed across society, we have to consider what it is we ultimately set our sights upon in striving for equality. Is it simply to make sure everyone has the same amount of whatever stuff we happen to deem valuable, or are our concerns about material inequality getting at something deeper?

More than just money

As Elizabeth Anderson points out, the agendas of actual egalitarian political movements throughout history have been much more broadly located in social relationships than in distributive arrangements alone; they have demanded freedom from shame, violence, exploitation, exclusion, and prejudice, and full possession of political, social, and economic rights for marginalised groups. Of course the question of material equality comes into play, in that things like fair pay and economic empowerment are part of the broader effort towards social justice, but to give primacy to the material stuff would be allowing the tail to wag the dog. What these egalitarian movements seek is fair treatment and the ability to relate on equal terms, and the right distributive arrangements are the ones that are conducive to these conditions: where, for instance, nobody is so poor that they are deprived of the means necessary for full social participation, such as education, healthcare, real democratic representation, and so on, and the gap between rich and poor is small enough that social integration and mutual respect can flourish.

As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson tell us, income inequality strengthens the grip of class and status on all of us, so people who care about relational equality should care about the instrumental role of material fairness in furnishing a just social situation. We can’t think through the reasons for distributing resources among people without considering the relationships between them as a factor in and product of that decision, so if we set our sights on mutual respect and equal relations as our ultimate priority, the right distribution of resources should follow closely behind.

What's luck got to do with it? 

Equal dignity and worth might seem like an obvious or uncontroversial starting point for all sorts of ethical claims, but it’s surprising how often the mandate for redistribution is seen instead as arising from the duty to correct for bad luck. Richard Arneson maintains that “the concern of distributive justice is to compensate individuals for misfortune … [it] stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky.” Luck is by definition a lottery, randomly allocating advantages that are unearned, so, the argument goes, fairness dictates that we must redistribute resources to correct for this.

However, as Anderson reminds us, the types of injustices about which egalitarians should be concerned are not cosmic, but political – “the proper aim of egalitarian justice”, she says, “is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which is by definition socially imposed.” The preoccupation shouldn’t be with distinguishing those whose misfortunes can be attributed to factors beyond their control from those deemed in some way responsible for their plight; given that we are all products of a multitude of internal and external influences – genetic, social, environmental – whose origin and degree of volition are hard to determine, making judgements like these is both practically difficult and morally dubious. The fixation on luck and control feeds the pernicious rhetoric surrounding the “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor, and paves the way for believing that the welfare state exists not to help the vulnerable on account of their intrinsic equal worth but instead to act just as one big insurance company that insures its citizens against bad brute luck. This runs counter to the whole ethos of institutions like the NHS, one of the most civilised and compassionate public offerings we have, which works on the basis that everybody deserves dignity and equal treatment, regardless of how their circumstances came to be.

A preoccupation with establishing how much of a hand someone has had in their fortunes has also produced the much-touted notion of meritocracy that’s often thought to justify material inequality. If a person has more than somebody else on the basis of greater talent, effort, and achievement, that’s fair enough, the argument goes. It’s interesting to note, given the degree to which it’s bandied around as a social ideal, that meritocracy was first conceived of in a dystopian satire by sociologist Michael Young in the 1950s, who envisaged the mess that would ensue if everybody at the top thought that they were there deservedly on merit alone, and felt they owed nothing to the less fortunate. In this sense, the notion of meritocracy can not only undermine claims to material parity but also erode equal respect by reinforcing and justifying status hierarchies.

We are right to be concerned about inequality; its effects are far-reaching at both the individual and collective level, and it cuts right to the heart of fundamental questions about justice and what we owe to one another. It’s important to be clear on what it is that we have in mind when we envisage a more equal society, and Elizabeth Anderson is right that we should follow egalitarian movements throughout history whose emphasis has been on equality as a social relationship rather than simply a pattern of distributive arrangements. When our reasons for pursuing better material equality are rooted in an unconditional belief in the equal worth of all people and the value of mutual respect between them, thats not a bad place to start.



Catch up on the full RSA Replays for more on inequality:

'How Inequality Gets Inside Our Heads' with Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

'Has the UK Reached Peak Inequality?' with Danny Dorling


Sign up for our upcoming event, 'How to Build a More Equal and United Society' with Eric Klinenberg


Click here to watch RSA Short 'The Myth of Responsibility' with Raoul Martinez


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