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10. Political Philosophy and Personal Behavior

10. Political Philosophy and Personal Behavior
If You're an Egalitarian How Come You're so Rich?

There may be coarse hypocrites who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all to whatever confession we belong.

George Eliot Middlemarch
According to John Rawls and to liberals quite generally the fundamental principles of justice apply to the rules of the basic structure of society and not to the choices people make within that structure beyond their choices about whether or not to promote support and comply with the rules of a just basic structure. (For a fuller statement of that Rawlsian view see Lecture 8 section 6.)
It follows that some aims which are rightly pursued by government whose legislation and policy decide the character of at least a large part of the basic structure are not aims that citizens themselves can and/or should be expected to pursue (apart from the pursuit of them in which citizens engage when they support those aims politically). According to Rawls the demands placed by justice on government do not belong on the backs of individuals as such; individuals discharge those demands collectively through the government that represents them. Thus while government should indeed seek to make the worst off as well off as possible the right way for it to do so is to enforce rules (of for example property and taxation) which are such that when individuals behave as they please and therefore as self-seekingly as they like within those rules then the outcome is better for the worst off than what would come from behavior under any alternative set of rules.
Lecture 9 argued against that position that justice in personal choice (under the influence of a just ethos) is necessary for a society to qualify as just. But the question “What does justice demand of individuals in a just society?” is not the same as the question “What does justice demand of individuals in an unjust society?” And in the present lecture I raise a question related to that second one: I ask whether egalitarians who live in an unequal society (one that is whose government for whatever reason fails to enforce and will continue to fail to enforce whatever equality it is that these egalitarians favor) are committed to implementing so far as they can in their own lives the norm of equality that they prescribe for government.1 There is one thing egalitarians within an unequal society cannot say in the light of what was shown in Lecture 9. They cannot say that equality is not a goal for individuals to pursue in their own lives in any society (be it just or unjust) and therefore more particularly not something for individuals to pursue in their own lives in an unequal society. But they might and do advance other reasons for not pursuing it in an unequal society—reasons which I propose to examine here.
In asking what conduct egalitarians are committed to in an unequal society I am interested more particularly in the conduct of rich egalitarians in an unequal society; it's not so hard for a poor egalitarian to be true to her egalitarianism in an unequal society.2 Or if you prefer I am interested in the conduct of rich professed egalitarians since many people would say that they can't be egalitarians that they can't really believe in equality if they're rich3—if that is they keep their money. (For the principal challenge to them is not that these egalitarians—or “egalitarians”—earn or otherwise receive a lot. It's not their gettings4 but their keepings that raise the hard questions since it would seem possible for them to use their excessive—from an egalitarian point of view—proceeds to promote equality.) Most people find the posture of rich folk who profess a belief in equality peculiar and my anti-Rawlsian conception of the just society might be thought to make it look more peculiar still. And their posture includes my own posture since I am myself a relatively high earner and as you will not be surprised to learn I give away only a fraction of the money that I earn. (By which I don't mean that I give away something like for example three quarters of it; I mean a different more fractional sort of fraction.)
By way of prelude I should like to express an embarrassment about the question that frames this lecture. There are two sharply opposite reasons why the topic of the lecture embarrasses me and I'm not sure what their relative weights are in the genesis of my embarrassment. One reason why I am embarrassed is that I was raised as a Marxist in a working-class communist home and it goes against my inherited Marxist grain to place wealthy individuals under what the Marxists of my childhood would have regarded as an unduly moralistic focus. I was taught as a child to concentrate my judgment on the unjust structure of society and away from the individuals who happen to benefit from that injustice. I did begin to go against that teaching (albeit on the quiet) in a moralizing direction when I was very young and I don't believe it now yet it still has a place within my feelings. But the other reason why I am embarrassed is that although I am not as rich as Croesus or as a Rothschild I am like most professors much richer than the average person in my society even though for various reasons that need not be laid out here I am quite poor as professors go.
Now those are as I said sharply opposite reasons for being embarrassed. Marxists of the sort that once surrounded me regarded moralizing about an individual's wealth as obviously foolish. They would have said that I am obviously entitled or not unentitled to my reasonably comfortable life; they would have said that the topic of this lecture is a silly fuss. I find that I cannot purge my feelings of that attitude but I also think that there is something peculiar about being a rich egalitarian and that my own posture is therefore questionable.5
So I face embarrassment both if I affirm and if I deny that I should give away more money than I do.
My topic is not however as moralistic as it may appear to be since we must distinguish between on the one hand the obligations laid on someone by a conception to which she is committed and on the other how severely she is to be blamed for failing to meet those obligations. I do not address that quantitative question here but my approach to it would be informed by the considerations in mitigation of blame for failure to behave justly that I reviewed in section 3 of Lecture 9. That section shows that I am less moralistically judgmental than some of my views might wrongly lead you to suppose.
I shall not reach a definite answer to the question raised in this lecture—the question that is whether the posture of rich egalitarians is sustainable. I shall simply present considerations which bear on the question. But I don't feel very apologetic about this incompleteness because the issue mooted here has not been addressed much by philosophers and I've therefore had to start pretty well from scratch. I have not been able to build on or to react to a body of literature.6
It might be objected to my dearth-of-literature claim that Shelly Kagan's Limits of Morality and the works prompting it and prompted by it do address my question in its appropriately generalized form when they consider whether or not a person is obliged to make the world as good as possible. But the answer to my question is not necessarily settled by the answer to Kagan's principally because he is not discussing what belief in a principle commits you to in a world where the principle is not observed and will for some time go on being not observed and also because he is not addressing the special question why people who favor state enforcement of a certain sacrifice from them (here expropriating a substantial portion of their money) nevertheless feel justified in making no equivalent sacrifice on their own. Kagan is discussing what the good's being thus and so requires from you regardless of your beliefs and regardless of how compliant with or transgressive of morality others are. To be sure if Kagan is right such qualifications make no fundamental difference to what a person's obligations are but few think he is right (I for example do not);7 and even if he is right it may be useful to investigate my more specific question without supposing that he is right.
It is curious that philosophers have not been attracted to the present issue in its properly specialized form since it's such a familiar one in everyday life. Virtually everybody whether rich or poor whether educated or not experiences a certain cynicism or at least a certain reservation when presented with the spectacle of a rich person who declares a belief in equality. It looked ridiculous for instance whenever a rich egalitarian would express indignation at the latest Margaret Thatcher or John Major government policy while sipping fine wine with fine friends in her fine expensive home.8 Why has no egalitarian philosopher addressed this issue? Is it because the posture of a rich egalitarian is too obviously indefensible to be worth investigating? Or is it because it is too obviously innocent to require defending? Or is it because egalitarian philosophers divide without substantial remainder into ones who think the rich egalitarian posture obviously indefensible and ones who think it obviously innocent? I believe the last hypothesis to be true and it follows that there is intellectual work to do in this region which I try to begin to do here.
Let me recall three relevant incidents in my own life all of which occurred within my decades-long ambivalent relationship to the British Labour Party. I've joined that party three times and I've also left it three times. In the 1960s and 1970s the British Labour Party could still have been styled an egalitarian party by virtue of its ideology if not by virtue of the policies of its governments. But I remember when I was a young lecturer in London on a low salary campaigning in 1964 for the millionaire incumbent MP George Strauss in the safe Labour seat of Lambeth which was a place full of poverty—I remember how uncomfortable I felt when Strauss arrived one evening at local party headquarters in the Kennington Road sporting a silk scarf beautiful coat and other sartorial and behavioral accoutrements of opulence. Yet George Strauss was a Labour hero: he had played a central role in the nationalization of the steel industry under Clement Attlee. More poignantly still I remember the late Harold (eventually Lord) Lever a Manchester millionaire and right-hand man to Harold Wilson replying to callers on a phone-in show in the Seventies when the topic momentarily was the Labour Party's then danger of insolvency. One caller asked Lever what I thought was a good question whatever its answer should have been. Why Lever was asked did he not personally wipe out Labour's debt by giving it the few millions that it needed after which he'd still have plenty left? What struck me was that Lever did not answer the question and that his talk-show host did not think that he should. They treated the question as ridiculous and its poser as impertinent. To be sure those might have been reasonable responses to make after some answer had been given to the question and in the light of that answer; but no answer was given.9 Finally I recall being asked by a multimillionaire novelist friend both of mine and more so of the then leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock to donate money to the party on the eve of the 1992 election campaign. I remember how I felt huffy when my friend responded huffily to my pledge to give (what he considered to be a paltry) fifty pounds.
There's a fine representation of this issue in David Lodge's excellent (and in my view deep) satirical novel Small World. Lodge depicts an encounter between Maurice Zapp a Jewish American professor of English at “Euphoric State University” (it's really Berkeley) and Fulvia Morgana an Italian revolutionary intellectual of enormous wealth. Zapp and Morgana meet for the first time on a flight from London to Milan. He interrupts her reading of the French Marxist Louis Althusser and she invites him to her sumptuous home for the night. I quote the stretch of text in which Fulvia responds to Zapp's puzzlement about the conjunction between her Marxism and her wealth:
“There's something I must ask you Fulvia” said Morris Zapp as he sipped Scotch on the rocks poured from a crystal decanter brought on a silver tray by a black-uniformed white-aproned maid to the first-floor drawing-room of the magnificent eighteenth-century house just off the Villa Napoleone which they had reached after a drive [from the airport in Fulvia's Maserati coupé].… “It may sound naive and even rude but I can't suppress it any longer.… I just want to know … how you manage to reconcile living like a millionaire with being a Marxist.”
Fulvia who was smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder waved it dismissively in the air. “A very American question if I may say so Morris. Of course I recognize the contradictions in our way of life but those are the very contradictions characteristic of the last phase of bourgeois capitalism which will eventually cause it to collapse. By renouncing our own little bit of privilege”—here Fulvia spread her hands in a modest proprietorial gesture which implied that she and her husband enjoyed a standard of living only a notch or two higher than that of say a Puerto Rican family living on welfare [on] the Bowery [in Manhattan]—“we should not accelerate by one minute the consummation of that process which has its own inexorable rhythm and momentum and is determined by the pressure of mass movements not by the puny actions of individuals. Since in terms of dialectical materialism it makes no difference to the ‘istorical process whether Ernesto and I as individuals are rich or poor we might as well be rich because it is a role that we know ‘how to perform with a certain dignity. Whereas to be poor with dignity poor as our Italian peasants are poor is something not easily learned something bred in the bone through generations.”10
Now the average Anglophone egalitarian political philosopher is neither as left-wing nor as wealthy as Fulvia is. He—and it is usually a he—is nevertheless both on the left of the political spectrum and high up the earnings ladder. Academics or at any rate academics in Britain and North America frequently complain that they make much less money than lawyers architects dentists executives and so forth do but they certainly make much more than most people do in the societies in which they live and leading egalitarian political philosophers are not exceptions; being leading they make a lot even as academics go. So some version of Morris Zapp's puzzlement about Fulvia seems to be in order with respect to them.
I began to feel an analogous puzzlement long before I came to know egalitarian philosophers and long before I encountered the British Labour Party. For I was surrounded by Communist Party members in my childhood and while most of them were poor or anyway not particularly well off there were some fabulously rich ones and a few of them were actually capitalists. I remember one wealthy and dedicated communist whom I'll call David B. telling me about his recent trip to the Soviet Union and how wonderful it was to see efficient factories being run for the welfare of the people with no capitalist in sight. This exchange occurred in David B.'s plush office in the plush office building that he owned in the center of Montreal; David B. was a big man in real estate. Another dedicated communist was a big man in the garment industry and reputed to be a pretty tough boss.
Given all that I knew about them and having strained the resources of my youthful imagination I found that I could not attribute a consistent set of ideas to these comrades. I don't think they could have looked me in the eye and said that in being capitalist they were doing their bit to exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism or a shade less extravagantly that like everyone else they were merely playing their assigned role in the capitalist class structure that they really had no choice in the matter. Those recourses which occur to academics familiar with Marxism require too much (contestable and ultimately implausible) theoretical orchestration to be usable in real life; and it is noticeable and part of his admirable subtlety that David Lodge doesn't make Fulvia say precisely those things but something rather different—and part of what she says is not at all contemptible as I shall have occasion to indicate in section 14 below.
I still see no prospect of reconciling a commitment to communism with being tough on your very own workers. Let's not look for an unexpected consistency in this extreme instance of the phenomenon under inspection here. Instead let's look at the question of consistency or inconsistency in its milder because more general form—not that is between communist egalitarian belief and wealth through tough bosshood but just between egalitarian belief as such and wealth as such.
We are navigating close to those familiar philosophical rocks that surround the question whether people may truly believe in principles on which they do not act. This is the ancient problem of akrasia on which Socrates and Aristotle had opposed views. Socrates thought it was impossible to do intentionally what you think it wrong to do and Aristotle held a view which is harder to summarize but which was certainly not the Socratic view. The akrasia problem or one part of it is whether this dyad is inconsistent:
1. A believes that he ought (all things considered) to do X.
2. A does not intend to do X.
Not just philosophers but people in general are divided in their answer to that question. In the early 1960s the Oxford philosopher Alan Montefiore asked a lot of people whether they thought it possible that a person might deliberately do what she believes to be wrong. Around half of his sample said yes and the other half said no. More interestingly still on each side people thought that the opinion they themselves held was obviously true.
For my part I side with those who think that 1 and 2 are consistent. I think it's as easy as pie to do what you believe to be the wrong thing to do. You might do it because you can succumb to temptation and you succumb to temptation without being overcome by it—your will need not be weak for it to be bad by your own lights. We have to distinguish between moral weakness (that is failure for whatever reason to meet a moral standard) and weakness of will which is a common excuse for moral weakness and quite commonly a false one. As the late British philosopher J. L. Austin memorably said: “We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.”11
R. M. Hare is by contrast on Socrates’ side. He is convinced that I and 2 can be rendered consistent only by attributing some kind of inability to do X to agent A.12 For so Hare asks if A believes that he can do X yet doesn't intend to then what more could show that he doesn't really believe that he ought to? His mere say-so is hardly counterevidence anyone can say anything. But I disagree with Hare. Even if behavioral proofs of belief are required acting as a professed belief directs is not the only type of behavior to be considered. Behavior other than conformity to a given norm can display belief in that norm—manifestly sincere criticism of other agents behavior that manifests sincere regret about your own behavior and so on. (The sincerity of the relevant declarations and other expressive behaviors might be indicated by the costs of engaging in them in the relevant contexts.) Such behaviors are evidence that you believe that you ought to do X even when you regularly fail to do X.
But the akrasia dyad does not state my problem. The issue I've raised concerns the consistency of a triad which I'll reach through two sets of modifications to the exhibited dyad. First add 3 to it:
1. A believes that he ought (all things considered) to do X.
2. A does not intend to do X.
3. (A believes that) A's behavior is not out of line with his own principles.
Now that triad undoubtedly represents an inconsistency. If you leave out what's in the parentheses in 3 the inconsistency is a logical one: it's logically impossible for all that to be true of A. And if you include what's in the parentheses then all of 1 through 3 might be all too true but there's then an inconsistency in A herself between her beliefs and her behavior. Or if there is a subtle consistency in the triad that I'm failing to see then I'm sure it could be eliminated through a (nontendentious) tightening of one or more of the triad's constituent formulations.
That is not however the triad that exercises me. The 1–2–3 triad is relatively uninteresting because the behavior reported in 2 is the very behavior that is condemned in I; there can be no question about that. But an analogous question is more difficult to answer when we confront the triad which formulates what is indeed the problem that exercises me:
4. A believes in equality.
5. A is rich (which means that A does not give a relevant amount of his money away).
3. (A believes13 that) A's behavior is not out of line with his own principles.
It is an interesting question whether the behavior reported in 5 is incongruent with the belief reported in 4.
The rich communists that I knew satisfied the full form of 3. They were not people who lamented their own moral weakness or moral insufficiency. They really thought that a principled commitment to an egalitarian society did not imply giving away most of their own money and most egalitarian political philosophers believe the same. How can such a posture be defended?
Before I address that question let me once more underline that it does not ask how the people under inspection can credibly claim to believe in equality. I know they believe in it. My question is how they can think it not inconsistent to believe both that and that their behavior is unobjectionable. I'm not asking how they can say given their behavior “I believe in equality” but how they can say in light of that behavior “I believe in equality and I am true to that principle in my life.”14 To clarify the difference between the two questions here is an answer which has some mileage with respect to the question I am not asking but which manifestly fails as an answer to the question I am asking.
The rich professed egalitarian challenged by a questioner who does not accept that he really believes in equality might say: “Look I'm no saint but I'm also not particularly sinful. I'm an averagely good person. I became rich not because I was worse than averagely good but because of fortunate circumstances and as rich people go I'm pretty generous with my wealth. The fact that I am lucky enough to have ampler choices than the average nonrich person does not mean that I'm worse than the average nonrich person since I handle my choices in a reasonably decent fashion. (And I at least have the right belief. Would it be better if I not only allowed myself to benefit from inequality but also believed that was OK?)”15
That I submit is a decent answer in vindication of the sincerity of the man's belief. But the answer does not address my question. This man confesses to failure. He confesses that his behavior fails to live up to his principles while insisting that he does believe in those principles. He offers an excuse for his behavior—to wit that it is not worse than that of people at large—rather than a justification of it since he does not claim that his behavior is justified. (The distinction I here invoke between excuses and justifications runs as follows: When you are excused for not having done X X remains what you should have done; it was the right thing to do but your excuse renders you less vulnerable to criticism or to penalty for not having done it. When by contrast you have a justification for not having done X then that justification shows that X was not as it might first have appeared to be and/or as it would otherwise have been the thing that you ought to have done.)
The people I'm interested in do not confess failure to live up to their principles; they do not ask that their behavior be excused. That's what puzzles me here. And to recall the point made at the end of section I above I am not asking how bad the people under inspection are or how guilty they should feel. I am asking how they can think that their stance is consistent. I am not asking how bad it is to be inconsistent in the particular way that they putatively are.
They might argue that there is no case to answer. They might say that while egalitarians prefer a society of an egalitarian type preferring that type of society has no implications for behavior in a society of a different type and is therefore consistent with their acceptance of rich pickings within the different type of society that they now inhabit.
Well logical consistency is no doubt there but logical consistency is a very thin thing as is shown by the fact that the following position which a strange (supposed) egalitarian might embrace is logically consistent: I favor an equal society-one that is in which everyone lives by an egalitarian norm. But if all but two people live by that norm of whom I am one and the other is a rich and obdurate anti-egalitarian then my egalitarianism does not commit me to living by the egalitarian norm since my society would remain an unequal one even if I did so.
What matters is not bare logical consistency but a consistency which incorporates the reason the egalitarian would give in support of her belief in equality. Everything depends on why she favors it. If she favors it because she thinks that inequality is unjust then it is hard to agree that her behavior is principled. If you hate inequality because you think it is unjust how can you qualmlessly accept and retain money your retention of which embodies that injustice—money which you could give to others or donate to an egalitarian cause and thereby diminish or hope to diminish the amount of injustice that prevails by benefiting sufferers of that injustice?
But not everybody who believes in equality says that she believes in it as a matter of justice.16 So for example the rich egalitarian might say: “I want a society of equality because I hate the division between rich and poor that disfigures this one. Inequality destroys community; it alienates people from one another. But that is no reason whatsoever for giving away my money and joining the poor side of the division. It's the division that I hate and extravagant charity on my part might do nothing to eliminate it. There are eighty million poor people in my society and twenty million rich ones. Society would not plainly become less divided-it might even by some measures become more divided-if I made myself and some of the eighty million poor slightly less poor than each of the eighty million now is.17 And I myself would remain divided off from other people. It's clear that an appropriate comprehensive restructuring of society would reduce division but it's not clear how I can use my own wealth to reduce it.”18
One can agree that hatred of the division between rich and poor is indeed a reason for desiring equality. But what makes the distinction between rich and poor a hateful one in the way that the distinction between redheads and brunettes or between beer-lovers and wine-drinkers is not? What makes the distinction between rich and poor a hateful division? I think the rich/poor division is hateful in part because the poor have intelligible sentiments of injustice when they contemplate that division. But the antidivision egalitarian who eschews the discourse of justice says that such sentiments are or (supposing that the poor have no such sentiments) would be misplaced. He denies that (at least part of) his reason for hating inequality is its injustice. If as may well be the case that denial is sincere then so far as I can see his posture is not inconsistent.
Still other believers in equality think that egalitarian redistribution is required not by justice or even to overcome division as such but because it is desirable that every person be provided with resources that are needed to live a good life19 or failing which that as many people as possible be so provided20 and that as things are in our society comprehensive state egalitarian redistribution is required to promote that desideratum: you can't promote it on your own.
One might challenge such a person as follows: Why don't you top up the holdings of some of those who are very near the bottom line of what you consider necessary to have a good life until you are yourself just above that line?
To this he might offer two replies one relating to practicality and one relating to principle.
He might say on the side of practicality that it is not feasible to make one's charity work in the fine-tuned fashion that the challenge contemplates: one could never be sure that the lives one is targeting are precisely nearly good. Epistemic difficulties mean that he could end up bringing no one above the line and for good measure thrusting himself below it so that the net effect of his intervention would be negative from the point of view of there being as many good lives as possible.
That answer might justify nongiving on the part of the somewhat rich but not on the part of those who are so rich that they can give a lot to each of a number of people with bad lives and still have quite a bit left and thereby (because of “a lot”) avoid the “targeting problem” and too (because of “quite a bit”) without making their own lives ungood. (A rich person might for example pay for the expensive (but not too expensive for him) operation of someone whose life while now unquestionably a misery is almost certainly destined to be good once the operation has been performed.) So while the practicality reply might save egalitarian professors of the stated persuasion who like me are not especially wealthy it does little to exonerate very wealthy egalitarians.21
The reply of principle distinguishes between what states of affairs a person thinks are good and what obligations he believes he has to promote those states of affairs. Thus for example I might think that London's appearance would benefit if more of its prospective new architecture were neo-Gothic rather than postmodern but it does not follow that I must think myself obliged to join or to form a bring-back-the-Gothic society. More generally it is only act consequentialists who believe that one has a duty to maximize the good and that is a minority position in philosophy. Egalitarians who regard equality as desirable but not as required by justice have then a ready answer to the challenge about why they do not give their money away. This answer is also available to those antidivision egalitarians (see section 5 above) who deny that at least part of what makes social division repugnant is that it reflects injustice.
Let us now look at the hard form of our problem as it arises for egalitarians who believe in equality because they think that inequality is unjust. Their problem is harder. One may indeed deny that one is (even slightly) obliged obliged to strive to produce what one regards as (merely) good and one can also deny that one is obliged to do whatever one can to right an injustice just because it is an injustice. But how can one deny without ado that one is obliged to forgo the benefits one enjoys as a result of what one regards as injustice22 when one can forgo them in a fashion that benefits sufferers of that injustice?23 There may be good excuses and/or justifications24 for not taking up the stated task but how can it be thought that no justification or excuse is needed for not shouldering it?
The questions here put to egalitarians who acknowledge that their egalitarian beliefs are inspired by justice run as follows: Why don't you pursue equality by donating the extra that you would lack in a just society to poor people and/or to organizations that promote equality? Since you don't do these things (on the relevant scale) you don't believe in doing them (on that scale) if as you claim (see the 4–5–3 triad in section 3 above) your behavior matches your beliefs.
It would be amazing if wealthy egalitarians of the stated persuasion gave nothing to either of those causes both to those which attenuate the worst results of current inequality and to those which fight for a more egalitarian society and I've certainly never known a rich communist who professed to be inspired by justice or a rich egalitarian political philosopher who gave or gives nothing to either. Since they give what they do with a sense of obligation they cannot say that their egalitarian beliefs have no implications for how they should act in an unequal society. So how come they give away such a small portion of their surplus?
They might say that even if they were to give to such causes on a scale that reduced their own lives to a merely average standard of amenity that would still be only a drop in the ocean; it wouldn't make enough difference to the global position. But there are at least two replies to that. One is: Why should you expect single-handedly to make a massive global difference? You are in a position to make a huge difference to many people and that is surely enough. And the other reply is: You do after all give something. At present you give a smaller drop in the ocean than the one you affect to deride as negligible. So how can you justify giving only that even smaller drop?
There are further points to be made about the drop-in-the-ocean defense but before I make them some remarks are needed by way of background to them.
I have not thus far offered a precise specification of the principle of equality that those here on trial are to be supposed to be affirming.25 Precision in the statement of that principle would for the most part be inappropriate here partly because many rich egalitarians are not political philosophers whose trade requires that they work their egalitarian beliefs into a (relatively)26 precise form and partly because those rich egalitarians who are indeed philosophers defend different forms of egalitarian principle. We are investigating those whose lives are powered by resources evidently in excess of what they know they could expect to get in the egalitarian society they profess to favor. The challenge we put to them therefore applies across the different ways they might or do render their beliefs in equality precise.
But the cogency of some defensive responses to that challenge does depend on the precise form of egalitarianism our egalitarians do or would adopt and the drop-in-the-ocean response is a case in point. Accordingly I offer herewith one large distinction between forms of egalitarian principle that our defendants might affirm a distinction that is pertinent to the “drop” defense.
One may distinguish broadly between egalitarian principles which locate value in equality properly so called which is a relation between what different people get and which is strictly indifferent to how much they get and egalitarian principles (like Rawls's difference principle) which affirm not strictly speaking equality itself but a policy of rendering the worst off people as well off as possible. We can call the first sorts of egalitarians “relational egalitarians” and the second “prioritarians” since they assign priority to improving the condition of the worst off.27
Now the “drop” defense works better on behalf of relational egalitarians than it does on behalf of prioritarians. For although even a very rich person cannot make society much more equal than it is he can certainly make some among the very worst off palpably better off than they now are and thereby if he is a prioritarian significantly advance what he regards as the just cause: it is the plight of the badly off that arouses his sense of justice. Accordingly the “drop” defense looks pretty pale when it is used by prioritarians whatever it may do for those who endorse equality as such. And there are I hazard many more prioritarian egalitarians than there are pure egalitarians. Most egalitarians are egalitarian because they think equality would benefit the badly off.28
Recall the two replies to the drop-in-the-ocean defense which I offered earlier: that one rich egalitarian can do a great deal for a decently large number of people and that those rich egalitarians (that is almost all of them of whatever specific persuasion) who give something can hardly describe giving much more than what they in fact give as too negligible a sum to be worth giving. The first of those replies works better against that majority of egalitarians who are prioritarian than it does against pure egalitarians. The second reply the inconsistency it exposes works well against both and the factual premise of the second reply which is that the person under inspection does (after all) give a little something casts doubt on the self-description of those who profess that they value equality as such since the very little that they do give can indeed do almost nothing for equality even though it might benefit some individuals a lot.
Before I leave the drop-in-the-ocean defense a final point about negligibility. “Negligible” can mean “numerically small relative to the total picture” but it can also mean “unimportant” and negligibility in the first of these senses does not entail negligibility in the second sense. Notice now that this nonentailment evidently bears against rich prioritarian egalitarians: getting twenty people out of dire straits is a negligible effect in the first numerical sense when five million are in such straits but it is not plausible to say that it is negligible in the sense of unimportant especially for someone whose egalitarianism focuses on how badly off the badly off are. (Whether the exhibited ambiguity in “negligible” has a bearing against rich relational egalitarians who employ the “drop” defense is a subtle question that I shall not address.)
Once the goal of equality proper is clearly distinguished from a policy of favoring the worst off many people come to doubt whether there is anything to be said for equality itself. But one important egalitarian view that propounded by Ronald Dworkin not only endorses equality itself but also supplies a particularly challenging treatment of the topic of this lecture.
Within Dworkin's theory of equality the locus of the norm of equality proper (as opposed to for example norms governing duties of compassion to the unfortunate be they at home or abroad) is in the relationship between the state and those whom it claims the right to govern. Because it claims that right the state must treat its citizens with equal respect and concern on pain of being a tyranny and it must therefore distribute resources equally to its members. But if the state fails to do so then no analogous duty falls on individuals. It is not the individual's duty to treat everyone (relatives friends and strangers alike) with equal respect and concern.
It does not follow that no related duty falls on the individual when the state fails to be just. For Dworkin it is then the individual's duty to promote equality by trying to change the state's policy. For insofar as government is unjust the citizens whom it represents are Dworkin thinks collectively responsible for that injustice. Each therefore has a duty to seek to rectify the state's injustice. So there is indeed a tension between professing egalitarianism and not doing anything to promote equality by for example contributing money and/or time to an egalitarian political party. But there is no obligation to contribute so that one ends up as one would in an egalitarian society. Exactly what the size and shape of one's political duty are is a hard question but it is not the duty to do what the state should be doing. There is no particular reason why one should spend on politics what would reduce one to the level that equality would impose.
According to Dworkin the state when properly constituted is the authoritative agent of the citizenry as a whole upon whom the slate's obligations ultimately lie. So for example29 if the state fails in its distributive duty but excessively wealthy people happen to be magically good at coordinating their actions with one another then they would indeed be obliged to coordinate so as to secure equality. So it's not quite true that for Dworkin where the state fails the only relevant duty of the individual is to promote equality by working for better slate policy. But it remains true that her duty is as a member of a collective on whom the duty primarily falls. If I know that others won't cooperate appropriately then equality per se gives me no reason to open my purse just as I have no reason to open it based on equality if I know that no political party or movement is disposed to promote equality or can be caused to be disposed to do so.
Dworkin does not of course think that we owe nothing to starving people as such whether they be within our own state or outside it; but so he insists our duty to them is one of human compassion not one that derives from a principle of equality. To the extent that the world become subject to international governance a duty of equality would fall on the relevant government; but that is consistent with and indeed a consequence of Dworkin's view. It would be a mistake to think that globalization of authority or the nascent forms of it that we now witness represent a challenge to his view. The claim that a norm of equality goes with subjection to a common authority allows for shading in the stringency of the demand for equality that matches shading in the extent to which transnational authority obtains.
If Dworkin's “statocentric” view of equality is sustainable then it follows that the rich egalitarian need not structure his life as the state should structure it in conformity with an egalitarian norm. But it is of course an independent question whether Dworkin's view is indeed sustainable and I should like here to express some doubts about it.
First it seems quite unclear that a state which forthrightly refuses to pursue a norm of strict distributive equality ipso facto shows failure to treat its subjects with equal respect and concern. If the government believes strongly in and implements certain nonegalitarian distributive norms—such as for example a high guaranteed minimum with the rest of distribution being determined by laissez-faire—it seems false that it stands convicted on that basis alone of disrespect and/or callousness toward at least some of its citizens. But if distributive equality proper does not follow from Dworkin's premise about the duty of the state then rich egalitarians cannot say that Dworkin has given the right account of their egalitarian beliefs and they therefore cannot use Dworkin's theory to argue that the duty to promote equality falls on the state (or on the people collectively) and not on individuals as such.
But even if that first doubt is misplaced and a state which fails to institute distributive equality indeed stands convicted of a form of political tyranny it still seems implausible that the only point of distributive justice the only reason for avoiding distributive injustice is that distributive injustice implies political tyranny. The norm of distributive equality surely stands (if it stands at all) independently of any kind of political equality even if political equality requires it. And Dworkin himself betrays agreement with that view. For the “immigrants” on the island that he describes in “Equality of Resources” “accept the principle that no one is antecedently entitled to any of [the island's] resources but that they shall instead be divided equally among them.” It is not because they think of the egalitarian auctioneer whom they proceed to appoint as their ruler that these egalitarian immigrants institute equality of resources. It is on the contrary expressly left open whether or not “they might create” a “state.”30 Having received their equal shares they might following the auction go their separate ways.
Finally I doubt that the motif of collective responsibility for distributive justice can be so readily integrated with the rest of Dworkins theory as I tried to make it seem in my sympathetic exposition of that theory. If an obligation to enforce equality comes from assertion of a right to rule why should that obligation lie on the people as a whole who might not after all assert any such right?
Another rationale for not giving away what one has in excess of what equality would allow a rationale that is popular with persons influenced by Marxism is that such giving does not touch the fundamental injustice which is the structured inequality of power between the rich and the poor. A rich person's charity does nothing to eliminate unequal power. It is but a particular use of the unequal income that reflects unequal power.
In reply:
Even if the power inequality really is the fundamental injustice it hardly follows that the unequal distribution of income which derives from it is not also unjust; the Marxisant defendant must surely agree that this too is unjust. So why should he not reduce the injustice that he can reduce even if it is a secondary one by distributing his surplus income in an appropriate way? It would be grotesque for him to say to those who lose from the unjust power division: “I won't succour you since what I deplore is at root not your poverty but the system that makes you poor.”
It is moreover false that the power difference is the fundamental injustice in every relevant sense. It is of course the causally fundamental injustice but it is not in a certain relevant sense the normatively fundamental injustice31 since it is plausible to say that the power difference qualifies as unjust because it (standardly) generates an unjust income distribution and therefore unjustly contrasting opportunities to enjoy the good things in life. To be sure the power difference remains an independent injustice: it's false that there would be no injustice if all powerful people were extravagantly charitable. But the distinction between causal and normative fundamentality nevertheless constitutes a strong objection to the stated Marxifying position.
In reply the Marxist might say: “All right. But even if the income difference is a separate injustice or even the fundamental injustice there is nothing productive that I can do about it. What I favor is a society whose basic structure is such that every able-bodied person earns roughly the same income. I don't want the poor to depend on the good will of the rich and also perhaps to experience a wholly misplaced sense of gratitude to them. I want them to have the self-respect that comes from their earning a decent living.”
To that attempt at repair I would reply as follows: I can accept your preference for their earning a decent living over their receiving charity. But that first preferred condition is not at present feasible and there is a third condition which is all too feasible: their neither earning a decent living nor receiving charity but continuing to live in misery Is that too preferable to their living much better on charity?
Yet another putative rationale for not expecting people to pursue privately the norms that would prevail in what they regard as a just society is that each person has the right to a private space into which social duty does not intrude.
But the prosecutor hounding the rich egalitarian need not deny that private spaces are legitimate. In a society with a state-imposed egalitarian income distribution there is plenty for everyone to decide without regard to social duty about the shape of their own lives and the same goes for prodigious donors in an unequal society. Inspired by different conceptions of the good they can eat fish or fowl go to synagogue or church play football or chess and so on; private spaces exist but because the egalitarian principle is fulfilled they are more similar in size than they otherwise would be and some are bigger than they would otherwise be. In an alternative formulation of my question it asks the rich who believe in equality as a matter of justice why they do not shrink their private spaces in an unequal society. That question is not answered by the truth (for I think it is one) that everyone has the right to (some sort of) private space.
The real question for both contexts—that is for both our unjust and a just society—is not whether a person has a right to a private space but what its shape should be. In what is perhaps its most persuasive form the private-space objection says that one's private space should be so shaped that one's life is not oppressive and that it would be oppressive to require the rich to have continual regard to the condition of the poor (which no one need have in a society with routinized procedures for producing equality).32 Whether or not the point is best made in terms of rights to have to keep the demands of the poor before or at the back of one's mind means an oppressive existence. That is the mental-burden rationale against extravagant voluntary philanthropy in an unequal society.
I shall assess the mental-burden rationale by examining Thomas Nagel's response to a claim made by Robert Nozick. Nagel's response bears directly on our question even though he and Nozick were not discussing the special problem of how an egalitarian should behave in a society whose government fails to induce equality. They were discussing this more general question: Why should whatever redistribution is called for be a matter for the state in particular as opposed to something that individuals have a duty to carry out by themselves?
Nozick said that if it was of compelling moral concern that the badly off be assisted then private charity could achieve that. He claimed that the only reason for preferring to assist them through state-imposed redistribution was that people who do not want to give are thereby forced to give33 (a coercion that Nozick would forbid but whether he is right J about that has nothing to do with the aspect of the Nozick/Nagel debate on which I invite focus here).
In reply to Nozick Nagel claimed that there are good grounds for state redistribution34 of the holdings of those who want to contribute because a person who is willing and indeed eager to contribute through taxation might reasonably be unwilling to give off her own bat. And Nagel's justification of that unwillingness would if sound apply to our case the case of the rich egalitarian who is asked why he does not contribute massively in a society whose state will not force him to do so. I quote Nagel (again interpolations in brackets are my own):
Most people are not generous when asked to give voluntarily and it is unreasonable to ask that they should be. Admittedly there are cases in which a person should do something although it would not be right to force him to do it [for example to keep an ordinary promise or to refrain from ordinary lying]. But here I believe the reverse is true. Sometimes it is proper to force people to do something even though it is not true that they should do it without being forced. It is acceptable to compel people to contribute to the support of the indigent by automatic taxation but unreasonable to insist that in the absence of such a system they ought to contribute voluntarily. The latter is an excessively demanding moral position because it requires voluntary decisions that are quite difficult to make. Most people will tolerate a universal system of compulsory taxation without feeling entitled to complain whereas they would feel justified in refusing an appeal that they contribute the same amount voluntarily. This is partly due to lack of assurance that others would do likewise and fear of relative disadvantage; but it is also a sensible rejection of excessive demands on the will which can be more irksome than automatic demands on the purse.35
There are two elements in Nagel's reply to Nozick; they are separately indicated in the final sentence of the quoted passage. First before the semicolon there is the “assurance problem” which I shall address in section 12. It is not essentially a matter of the contrasting burdens of voluntary and forced giving. Here I take up a distinct supposed advantage of redistribution through the state—to wit that it relieves the “excessive” burden on a person's will. For Nagel people might want to be forced by the state to give so that they can thereby avoid “voluntary decisions that are quite difficult to make.” When government justifiably (as Nagel thinks) appropriates some of my resources it reduces the scope of my choice but precisely because I now have no choice in the matter I am spared the burden of making a choice about it. So even though I'd gladly accept a very high tax on my income I should not therefore be expected to give away corresponding amounts off my own bat. (Note that the mental-burden argument is unaffected by whether or not other people are contributing voluntarily because their (different) makeup is such that for them the relevant voluntary decisions are easy to make or because they are acting in a supererogatory manner—that is undertaking more burden than one can reasonably be asked to undertake.)
Before I respond to the mental-burden argument two preliminary remarks.
First I must set aside a misinterpretation of Nagel to which some have shown themselves drawn. He is not saying: “I want to be forced to give because I know (or fear) that I might otherwise not give.” That is quite different from what I have supposed Nagel to mean. A person who expresses anxiety as to whether she'd give voluntarily need not believe that it is unreasonable to expect her to give (because of the stress on her will that giving would require). She might simply be avowing that she is not good enough (as opposed to: not strong enough)36 to do what's right. It is not a plausible interpretation of the Nagel passage to represent him as striking that self-critical posture; and if that were what he means then what he says would be irrelevant to our project which is to see whether 4 5 and 3 (see section 3 above) are consistent since on this (unlikely) interpretation of Nagel their inconsistency is not denied. That I know or fear that I would not give off my own bat is indeed a reason for me to prefer redistribution through the state but it is not what we are looking for which is a justification for not giving if the state does not force me to. It can't be a justification for not giving when the state does not force me to that I would not give unless the state forces me to.
Note secondly that Nagel is making more than the undeniable comparative claim that donating voluntarily can be more onerous than yielding to coerced transfer for those that is who regard a coerced transfer as justified. (To be sure many people who regard coerced giving as justified might nevertheless prefer to give voluntarily because of the satisfactions associated with that but such people are irrelevant here since they would not press Nagel's case.) That claim may suffice to refute the contention of Nozick against which Nagel is arguing; but Nagel is also claiming more strongly that people are justified in refusing to give voluntarily when such giving imposes “excessive” demands on their wills. It is that noncomparative claim which we must examine here because if it is true it reconciles 4 5 and 3.
What are we to make of Nagel's claim that problems to do with the will justify a refusal to give voluntarily on the part of those who believe in state-imposed redistribution? Suppose that it would indeed be a heavy burden to have to get myself to give each month when my salary comes in whatever is the amount that I think should be taken from me for the sake of the poor. Even so Nagel appears to ignore the individual's ability to avoid such recurrent difficult voluntary decisions: I can bind my own will once and for all or once in a long while by signing an appropriate banker's order.37 I do not need the state to make me give since through various contractual devices I can make myself give. Giving then becomes a relatively unoppressive routine. (I do of course lose the money and that is other things equal regrettable. But other things aren't relevantly equal here since I think I shouldn't keep the money. And it is in any case similarly regrettable when the state taxes it away.)
In considering the present question we must distinguish between the cost of doing something and how difficult it is to do that thing. The cost of an action for me is what I lose (but would have preferred to keep) as a result of performing it and also whatever pain or other unpleasantness attends the act of performing it whereas its difficulty for me is a function of how my capacities measure up to the challenge it poses.38 So for example it is difficult but not necessarily (commensurately) costly for me to put the thread into the needle's tiny hole or to return a well-placed tennis serve. But I do not necessarily suffer pain or lose anything if I manage to pull off these feats: I might find these difficult activities enjoyable.39 Contrariwise it is easy to make out a check for a large amount. Just a few strokes of the pen are needed but the cost of those strokes is large. And it is less difficult40 to make out a check for $5000 than one for $3445.66 although the cost of the first signing is manifestly greater.
Now it isn't clear from the passage on exhibit whether Nagel is urging that it's much more difficult or differently much more costly to give money away off your own bat than to have it appropriated willy-nilly by the state. But either way so I shall argue his case is weak. I believe that if it is perceived to have some strength that is because of a failure to distinguish appropriately between cost and difficulty. It's true that it is in some sense(s) “hard” to give away money but we have to nail down the exact senses in which that is and is not true; and once we've done so Nagel's plea fails as a justification for the egalitarian's inertia (however well or otherwise it might function as an excuse for that inertia).
Nagel does not win his point if we take him to mean difficulty as such. For even if we grant that the required mental effort is indeed difficult provided that it is not also costly we have not been supplied with a reason for not giving off our own bat what we would be willing for the state to take. Its difficulty as such is no reason for not performing an action that (although difficult) is possible and the voluntary giving that Nagel has in mind is undeniably possible. Nagel is not invoking the prospect of a pathological paralysis of the will. It's of course unreasonable to ask someone to do something impossible but it's not unreasonable to ask someone to do something difficult provided that it does not carry too high a cost.
For sufficiently high cost certainly is a good reason for refusing to perform an action. So we must now ask just how considerable the relevant cost of getting oneself to give can be thought to be41 and we must avoid polluting our assessment of that with thoughts about the substantial resulting cost the cost of losing the money in question for that is the same whether I offer it up myself or the state takes it willy-nilly. The present justification for not giving off my own bat turns entirely on the extra cost of doing it by myself.
In my opinion the costs of the two procedures—that is of giving off one's own bat and the states just taking—are indeed different for the sort of person Nagel contemplates but they are not dramatically different. Let me explain the structure of what I believe to be the modest extra cost that attaches to voluntary giving in the case in question.
Difficulty and cost though distinct do interact: they to some extent track and otherwise affect each other which is why indeed they are so commonly confused.42 And a particularly intricate connection between cost and difficulty obtains in the present context. For the cost consequent on the required decision—the cost that is of losing all that money—may add to the difficulty of making it. It may create mental resistance and it may in turn be painful or as Nagel says “irksome” to have to overcome that resistance. So the difficulty which comes from contemplating the consequent cost can generate a cost in the throes of decision itself43 and that might be what Nagel means. It is anyway so I suggest the best thing around here for him to mean. But I would still maintain that the costs of voluntary and state-imposed giving are nevertheless pretty similar because it isn't terrifically difficult or therefore terrifically additionally costly to get oneself to sign the check or the standing order and I think it can be thought to be so only when one misprojects the enormous cost which results from the decision the cost of what comes after it onto the cost that comes from the difficulty of making the decision itself.
I know that's pretty complicated; it took me a long time to work it out. So I think it will be useful to set forth an analogy that illuminates my point.
Suppose we are on the battlefield and a comrade will die unless my foot is cut off. (Never mind how that's supposed to help him. This is a philosophy lecture not a commentary on interpersonal surgery.) Nagel is saying the analogue of this: I might recognize that it would be right for someone forcibly to cut my foot off but I can nevertheless protest that it is asking too much to expect me to cut it off myself. Let me elaborate my doubt about Nagel's case through closer focus on this analogy.
Suppose that the foot is to be removed by a knife and that there is no anesthetic available. We need to compare the case in which someone else cuts my foot off—someone who like the taxing state operates independently of my will—with the case in which I myself have to cut it off. The cost that results from the cutting is the same in both cases: pain and loss of the foot. But because much pain comes immediately with the rutting it is fiendishly difficult will-wise for me to do the cutting myself for me to keep myself applied to that grisly task so difficult that substantial extra costs of struggle and strain supervene if I do. Contrast now a case where my foot will be severed by an electrically powered knife five minutes after a button is pressed and I do agree that the button should be pressed: I recognize the validity of my comrade's claim to my foot. Perhaps there is in addition to the other costs an extra burden on the will if I have to press the button myself but that extra burden is surely inconsiderable. It will not be a great relief to discover that you are determined to push the button so that I need not do so. And so I submit this second case not the manual cutting one is the right analogy here. The rich egalitarian wants the state to press the tax button. It may be a bit easier for him if the State does that than if he has to press the standing-order button when e-mailing his bank but Nagel's dramatic presentation of the difficulty of deciding to give convinces me that he is mistreating that minor contrast as though it resembled the contrast between my cutting my foot off and your doing it (with in each case a nonelectric knife).
I have allowed throughout this section that giving voluntarily is indeed more difficult and more costly for persons of a certain disposition than having the money taken away by the state. But the relevant subset of such persons here are those who like Nagel favor egalitarian action by the state and who are presumably therefore committed to voting for it. But why should casting such a vote be easier as Nagel must think it is than signing a relevant bankers order?
Is it because unlike that signing voting doesn't guarantee that you have to pay since your side might lose? But people of Nagel's persuasion presumably also think that you should vote in favor of equality even when you know that yours will be the casting vote. How could that be less difficult and/or costly than signing a bankers order to the same effect?
To drive this point home consider a device whose design is partly due to Martin Wilkinson who urged me to consider the comparison with voting. Suppose there's a standing-order form next to the ballot paper and you are to decide whether or not to sign each. But unusually both the vote and the standing order are conditional: your vote in favor of the Equality Party will take effect only if it is the casting vote and your standing order will take effect only if the Equality Party loses. (The Equality Party is irreversibly committed to taking from you in tax exactly what the standing order would cost you.) If you profess yourself in favor of (more) equality then you cannot credibly refuse to sign the order on the ground that doing so is much more demanding than voting for equality (which ex hypothesi you are prepared to do) since the two actions impose identical demands in the present case.
This as it seems to me devastating point against Nagel's “cost-of-willing” argument does not touch the other argument he offers to which I now turn.
A distinct Nagelian defense of the rich egalitarian that we need to consider relates to the “fear of relative disadvantage” which he mentions at the end of the passage quoted in section 11 above or more precisely to confident expectation of “relative disadvantage” since in our context (that is the real world) the desired “assurance” (that others will give as I do) is known to be unforthcoming. In our world very few rich people (even) profess egalitarianism; society is and will for the foreseeable future continue to be unequal whatever I may give. The “relative-disadvantage” defense is that the consequences for me if I give when others don't are intolerably oppressive.44 Accordingly to return to the device introduced at the end of section 11 even though I am committed to pressing the conditional voting button I can reasonably refuse to press the conditional standing-order button (although not because of the considerations about the difficulty of “willing” that were canvassed in section 11).
Rich egalitarian people might be willing to give generously only if similarly situated people would in general be ready to do the same. But as they well know those others are not similarly disposed. And because others will not give giving severely prejudices their self-interest and more poignantly the interest of members of their families. If Johnny's dad buys him a new bicycle how can Molly's dad explain why he doesn't buy one for Molly? The rich person should not be asked to depart from the observable norm of his peer group—a peer group to which importantly for present purposes he continues to belong even if he impoverishes himself since that group is substantially defined by his occupation and his education. Nor should he be asked to undertake a sacrifice which will alienate his children perhaps not now but later when having grown up they face a more burdensome life because of that sacrifice and when they (as is entirely possible) happen not to believe in egalitarianism themselves. That is surely too much to expect of them.
The beauty of a state-imposed duty or of a general ethos of giving is that when they obtain each well-paid person can then give without departing from the norm and therefore without having to accomplish an especially saintly response to peer group constraints. To expect a given rich person to be within a minority that give is to demand that he incur particular sorts of sacrifice that poor people need not face such as (to stay with the example already invoked) the sacrifice which a poor person is not called upon to make of deliberately denying one's child what one has the power to give her and what comparably placed parents give theirs.45 Accordingly a person can in full consistency think it desirable for tax policy and/or a general ethos to favor the badly off yet resist furthering their cause by extravagant personal initiative in an unequal society that lacks that policy or ethos.
A further point is in place here. We may assume that no one is obliged to sacrifice so much that she drops to a level worse than what she would be at in an egalitarian society. But an egalitarian society ensures that no one falls below a (decent) basic minimum and that is not ensured for people of average income in an inegalitarian society since they are subject to the buffetings of uncompensated bad luck. And once again this applies with special force in the case of children. “My children” the rich egalitarian could say “may for all kinds of reasons including unforeseeable ones be in a much worse position than I am as a result of which they might fare worse under our existing unjust institutions than they would in an egalitarian society unless I take steps to insure them against our society's risks by an appropriate policy of saving and bequest. It is therefore justifiable for me to engage in such saving (though not spend extravagantly) rather than to give away most of what I've got. It for the same reason not unreasonable for me to spend a lot on helping improve their prospective labor market position (e.g. through private schooling) to ensure that they will not be worse off than they would be under an egalitarian regime.”
The relative-disadvantage problem might be thought to show that what goes for the public domain need not go for the private. One might say that for assurance reasons equality is necessarily a social project.
The foregoing point about disadvantage related to one's social milieu including the disadvantage of imposing a special regime upon one loved one's seems to me to have some substance. And there is another substantial point. For although Fulvia Morgana is supposed to be and on the whole is a risible figure she is definitely onto something when she claims that unlike what holds for “Italian peasants” (see section 2 above) it is hard for those who are used to being rich to be poor with dignity. That something may be not exactly dignity but perhaps the absence of a constant sense of deprivation. Unstarving decently sheltered poor peasants are often better placed to enjoy a fulfilling life than self-expropriated wealthy people are. (And that is distinct from the relative disadvantage point since it has force against the demand that all rich people give up their wealth and not just against one of them doing so when (most of) the others do not.)46
Deeply relevant to how much weight the deprivation justification has is the problematic question of the metric of equality. The deprivation justification of the ways of rich egalitarians is made within a welfarist metric; it fails utterly within a resourcise one. (Note that resource egalitarians should laugh harder at Fulvia's special pleading than should welfare egalitarians since the latter take seriously the predicament of people who tastes are expensive in the sense that they need more resources than others do to live a fulfilling life.) My own view is that both welfare and resources should count.47 But I have not applied that view to the issues addressed here. I reserve the task of doing so for a future and more systematically structured study of the “rich-egalitarian” problem.
Before turning to one further justification that an egalitarian might adduce for not abandoning (much or most of) her wealth in an unequal society let me restate in capsule form the justifications that have been examined thus for (the number indicates the section in which the stated justification appeared): (5) what's bad about inequality is that it divides people from one another and my giving wouldn't help to reduce that divides (6) What's bad about inequality is that it produces bad lives and my giving might not increase the number of good lives; (7) my giving would be a drop in the ocean; (8) the norm of equality is essentially a duty of the state or of the collective it represents rather than of the individual (9) giving does not touch the fundamental injustice which is inequality of power; (11) because of the burden it imposes on the will giving (by contrast with being taxed) is oppressively costly; (12) giving sinks one below the level of one's peer group and that carries special costs; (13) the sharp reduction in living standard that follows sell-expropriation induces indignity and/or acute deprivation.
Now within the general category of justifications48 for not performing action X (here X is yielding up one's riches) one can distinguish between those that make it wrong to do X and those that make X neither obligatory not wrong. One can moreover distinguish within the latter subcategory between justifications that do and those that do not make X supererogatory—that is something beyond duty that it would be specially admirable to do.49
The resulting taxonomy may be depicted as follows:
That make it wrong to do X (JW) That make it neither obligatory nor wrong to do XThat make it neither obligatory nor wrong to do X
That make doing X supererogatory (JS)That do not make doing X superogatory (J)
We may classify the eight justifications discussed above as follows: (5) through (9) are of type J50 and (11) through (13) are of type JS (in modified forms the last three would be excuses rather than justifications but that is not how they are to be understood here).51
Our ninth would-be justification contrasts with those that have already been examined because it alone is of the JW type. This defense of the rich egalitarian says that it would be counterproductive—that is not merely pointless but destructive—for individuals to pursue the goal of improving the condition of the badly off through private munificence. The defense might be fleshed out in several ways.
First it might be contended that in the matter of promoting equality isolated individual action produces not the good results that action engaged in by all or by many would produce but instead bad results. Yet it is hard to see why that should be so. There are no coordination problems in this domain which would mean that individual acts of self-sacrifice might generate unproductive confusion.52
Second it could be urged that community welfare programs and other voluntary assistance induce the persistence of a dependence that their beneficiaries might otherwise escape. But it is wholly implausible to insist that no such action can be significantly beneficial.53
Finally and more persuasively at least in certain contexts there is the argument that retaining my resources enables me to do things in the interests of egalitarianism that I could not do if I gave them away. Since I'm rich my position in society affords me access to influential people whose decisions affect the lot of the badly off. I could not bend the ear of the police commissioner if I never received invitations to the high-life social functions at which I am likely to meet him. I must retain lavish resources if I am to entertain in appropriate fashion important people who might help the cause. I could not moreover run for a position on the municipal authority if I lacked the connections that money brings. And because I am wealthy I do not have to earn my living and that enables me to do uncompensated egalitarian work that I would otherwise lack the time to do. (I should also mention what my money enables me to do in respect of my children. By buying them topnotch education and other privileges while nevertheless instilling egalitarian values in them I ensure that they will be among the most talented people in the labor market and I thereby make it more likely that some who enjoy privileged positions will use them for egalitarian ends.)
The credibility of this rationale for remaining a rich egalitarian depends on the shape that politics takes in a given society. It is more credible the more remote a democratic movement for equality is and I judge that it is more credible for the rather undemocratic politics of the United States than for the somewhat more democratic less élite-determined (up until recently anyway) politics of Britain. You may disagree with that assessment but you will perhaps agree that it would be sheer dogmatism to say that the I-need-to-keep-my-money-precisely-in-order-to-promote-egalitarianism justification has no credibility under any circumstances.
I have acknowledged that a rich egalitarian may have good reasons for not giving extravagantly in an unequal society. But I have not tried to estimate how strong those reasons are all things considered—how weighty they can plausibly be thought to be in one society or another. There is a great deal more to be said about the problem of the rich egalitarian but the present exercise—whose ambition you will recall (see section 2) was only to put forward considerations that bear on the problem—ends here.