The Democrats: What Happened to Equality?

Political/Essays

The Democrats: What Happened to Equality?
By Wade Lee Hudson

Books and articles often show me new angles, offer new information, or deepen my perspective. Rarely do they change my thinking in a major way. Elizabeth S. Anderson’s 1999 tour de force “What is the Point of Equality?” is an exception. I’m still absorbing the impact of her passionate manifesto. No wonder colleagues have called that 50-page article “path breaking” and The New Yorker described her as “The Philosopher Redefining Equality.”

Anderson wants to end oppression by creating communities “in which people stand in relations of equality” to one another. Her thinking is rooted in numerous grassroots egalitarian movements, such as the civil rights, womens’, and disability rights movements.

Unfortunately, however, most grassroots political movements today don’t clearly reflect those social values. Rather, they focus on material reality. And, as indicated by what they said at the September 2019 debate, neither have the Democratic candidates for President absorbed her insights.

In the following review, which includes extensive excerpts, I place in bold her language that prompted new insights for me, and place in italics points that strengthened my convictions. 

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As Anderson sees it: 

Recent egalitarian writing has come to be dominated by the view that the fundamental aim of equality is to compensate people for undeserved bad luck—being born with poor native endowments, bad parents, and disagreeable personalities, suffering from accidents and illness, and so forth…. This “equality of fortune” perspective [or “luck egalitarianism”] is essentially a "starting-gate theory": as long as people enjoy fair shares at the start of life, it does not much concern itself with the suffering and subjection generated by people's voluntary agreements in free markets…. 

[Their] writing...seems strangely detached from existing egalitarian political movements…[that have fought for] the freedom to appear in public as who they are, without shame, [and] campaigned against demeaning stereotypes. 

Luck egalitarianism, which is dehumanizing, fails to advocate principles that express “equal respect and concern for all citizens” in three ways:

  1. It excludes some citizens from enjoying the social conditions of freedom on the spurious ground that it's their fault for losing them. It escapes this problem only at the cost of paternalism.

  2. Equality of fortune makes the basis for citizens' claims on one another the fact that some are inferior to others in the worth of their lives, talents, and personal qualities. Thus, its principles express contemptuous pity for those the state stamps as sadly inferior.... Such principles stigmatize the unfortunate…. 

  3. Equality of fortune, in attempting to ensure that people take responsibility for their choices, makes demeaning and intrusive judgments of people's capacities to exercise responsibility and effectively dictates to them the appropriate uses of their freedom. 

“Democratic equality” differs fundamentally.

In seeking the construction of a community of equals, democratic equality integrates principles of distribution with the expressive demands of equal respect. Democratic equality guarantees all law-abiding citizens effective access to the social conditions of their freedom at all times. 

It justifies the distributions required to secure this guarantee by appealing to the obligations of citizens in a democratic state. In such a state, citizens make claims on one another in virtue of their equality, not their inferiority, to others. Because the fundamental aim of citizens in constructing a state is to secure everyone's freedom, democratic equality's principles of distribution neither presume to tell people how to use their opportunities nor attempt to judge how responsible people are for choices that lead to unfortunate outcomes. 

Instead, it avoids bankruptcy at the hands of the imprudent by limiting the range of goods provided collectively and expecting individuals to take personal responsibility for the other goods in their possession. 

Bad Option Luck

Luck egalitarians distinguish between “option luck,” outcomes that result from voluntary choices, and “brute luck,” those “that occur independent of her choice or of what she could have reasonably foreseen.” 

They say victims of bad option luck should bear the burden of their choices. Once people “lose their fair share of natural wealth, they have no claims against others to stop their free fall into misery and destitution.”

They guarantee a minimally decent life only before one has made any adult choices. “This is small comfort to the person who led a cautious and prudent life, but still fell victim to extremely bad option luck.” With luck egalitarianism, the only recourse is to purchase insurance to prevent becoming “destitute and vulnerable to exploitation.”

Some luck egalitarians say the imprudent “are entitled to special paternalistic protection by society against their poor choices” due to alleged limited capacities. But Anderson considers this to be disabling paternalism.

It is hard to see how citizens could be expected to accept such reasoning and still retain their self-respect…. Luck egalitarians ought to be able to argue that some outcomes are so awful that no one deserves to suffer them, not even the imprudent. Negligent drivers don't deserve to die from a denial of health care. 

If luck egalitarians stick with their principles and refuse “to come to the aid of the victims of bad option luck,” they fail “to treat these unfortunates with equal respect and concern,” which undermines democratic equality and peer community.

Bad Brute Luck

Lack of respect is also revealed when luck egalitarians oppose coming to the aid of the victims of bad brute luck—“those born with serious genetic or congenital handicaps, or who become significantly disabled due to childhood neglect, illness, or accidents for which they cannot be held responsible…[and] those who have little native talent and those whose talents do not command much market value.”

Some luck egalitarians say that these victims “are entitled to compensation for their defective internal assets and internal states.” But this appearance of humanitarianism is contradicted by luck egalitarianism in two ways. 

First, its rules for determining who shall be included...fail to express concern for everyone.” One proposal “discriminates between people with rare and common disabilities,” and would also “treat two people with the same disability differently, depending on their tastes.” Another proposal would deny aid to deaf people who do not consider their condition to be “a grievous defect.” And “welfarist egalitarian theories” rely on subjective evaluations and “allow private satisfactions to count as making up for publicly imposed disadvantages.” But “if people find happiness in their lives despite being oppressed by others, this hardly justifies continuing the oppression.”

“Second, the reasons [this approach] offers for granting aid to the worst off are deeply disrespectful of those to whom the aid is directed.” What do luck egalitarians have to say to those supposedly cursed by such defects in their internal assets? Anderson answers this question with a hypothetical letter to such a client and then asks:

Could a self-respecting citizen fail to be insulted by such messages? ...To require citizens to display evidence of personal inferiority in order to get aid from the state is to reduce them to groveling for support. Nor is it the state's business to pass judgment on the worth of the qualities of citizens that they exercise or display in their private affairs….  

General knowledge of the grounds upon which citizens laid claim to special aid would be stigmatizing…, branding some of its citizens as inferior…. Yet such objections...do not get to the core of the problem…. 

[Luck egalitarianism] bases its distributive principles on considerations that can only express pity for its supposed beneficiaries…. Pity is incompatible with respecting the dignity of others. [It does not] express equal respect for all citizens…. Compassion is based on an awareness of suffering, an intrinsic condition of a person. Pity, by contrast, is aroused by a comparison.... Its characteristic judgment is not "she is badly off" but "she is worse off than me." ...Pity is condescending. 

Compassion...aims to relieve suffering, not to equalize it…. Furthermore, compassion seeks to relieve suffering wherever it exists, without passing moral judgment on those who suffer…. By contrast, [luck egalitarianism]...restricts its sympathy to those who are blamelessly disadvantaged. [It] therefore does not express compassion. It focuses not on the absolute misery of a person's condition but on the gap between least and most fortunate. Thus, among the more fortunate who are moved by equality of fortune, it evokes the pathos of distance, a consciousness of the benefactors' own superiority to the objects of their compassion. This is pity. 

What’s Wrong with “Equality of Opportunity”

Following this overview of equality of fortune, or luck egalitarianism, (or the “equality of opportunity” worldview), Anderson sums up its problems:

We have seen that equality of fortune underwrites a hybrid institutional scheme: free markets, to govern the distribution of goods attributable to factors for which individuals are responsible, and the welfare state, to govern the distribution of goods attributable to factors beyond the individual's control…. [It] appears to give us some of the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism

Egalitarianism ought to reflect a generous, humane, cosmopolitan vision of a society that recognizes individuals as equals in all their diversity. It should promote institutional arrangements that enable the diversity of people's talents, aspirations, roles, and cultures to benefit everyone and to be recognized as mutually beneficial. 

Instead, the hybrid of capitalism and socialism envisioned by luck egalitarians reflects the mean-spirited, contemptuous, parochial vision of a society that represents human diversity hierarchically, moralistically contrasting the responsible and irresponsible, the innately superior and the innately inferior, the independent and the dependent. It offers no aid to those it labels irresponsible, and humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. It gives us the cramped vision of the Poor Laws, where unfortunates breathe words of supplication and submit to the humiliating moral judgments of the state. How could luck egalitarians go so wrong? 

One problem is luck egalitarinism’s reliance on the “capitalist” free market:

It offers a very inadequate safety net for the victims of bad option luck…. The fact that these evils are the product of voluntary choices hardly justifies them: free choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. In focusing on correcting the supposed injustices of nature, luck egalitarians have forgotten that the primary subject of justice is the institutional arrangements that generate people's opportunities over time…. 

People's real or hypothetical market choices offer no guidance whatsoever to what citizens are obligated to provide to one another on a collective basis. This suggests another desideratum for egalitarian theory: it must supply principles for collective willing—that is, for what citizens should will together, not just for what each can will individually. 

 A second problem is luck egalitarinism’s reliance on the “socialist” welfare state:

Equality of fortune tells us that no one should suffer from undeserved misfortune. To implement its principles, the state must make judgments of moral desert or responsibility in assigning outcomes to brute or option luck. 

But with these merit-based systems of reward:

In order to lay a claim to some important benefit, people are forced to obey other people's judgments of what uses they should have made of their opportunities, rather than following their own judgments. Such a system requires the state to make grossly intrusive, moralizing judgments of individual's choices. Equality of fortune thus interferes with citizens' privacy and liberty.... Such judgments require the state to determine how much responsibility each citizen was capable of exercising in each case. But it is disrespectful for the state to pass judgment on how much people are responsible for their expensive tastes or their imprudent choices. 

Furthermore, equality of fortune would not really promote personal responsibility in the way that it claims. To be sure, it denies compensatory rewards to people who are judged responsible for their bad fortune. But this gives individuals an incentive to deny personal responsibility for their problems, and to represent their situation as one in which they were helpless before uncontrollable forces. Better social conditions for fostering the spread of a passive, whining victim's mentality could hardly be constructed. They allow citizens to lay claim to such goods as basic medical benefits only at the cost of making an undignified spectacle of themselves….

This mix of capitalist and socialist institutions does not succeed in establishing a society of equals. Moreover, this approach treats those “who devote the bulk of their energies to caring for dependents” the same as it treats “those who have a voluntarily expensive taste for charity.” In this way, it

assumes atomistic egoism and self-sufficiency as the norm for human beings. It promises equality only to those who tend only to their own self-interest, who avoid entering into relationships with others that might generate obligations to engage in dependent caretaking, and who therefore can manage to take care of themselves through their own wage earning, without having to depend on market-generated income provided by anyone else…. A more perfect reproduction of Poor Law thinking, including its sexism and its conflation of responsible work with market wage-earning, could hardly be imagined.

Democratic Egalitarianism

Anderson then elaborates on her alternative.

Inegalitarianism asserted the justice or necessity of basing social order on a hierarchy of human beings, ranked according to intrinsic worth. Inequality referred not so much to distributions of goods as to relations between superior and inferior persons…. Such unequal social relations generate, and were thought to justify, inequalities in the distribution of freedoms, resources, and welfare. This is the core of inegalitarian ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, caste, class, and eugenics.

Egalitarian political movements oppose such hierarchies. They assert the equal moral worth of persons. This assertion does not mean that all have equal virtue or talent…. The claim asserts that all competent adults are equally moral agents: everyone equally has the power to develop and exercise moral responsibility, to cooperate with others according to principles of justice, to shape and fulfill a conception of their good.

Negatively, egalitarians seek to abolish oppression—that is, forms of social relationship by which some people dominate, exploit, marginalize, demean, and inflict violence upon others…. 

Positively, egalitarians seek...to live together in a democratic community, as opposed to a hierarchical one. Democracy is here understood as collective self-determination by means of open discussion among equals, in accordance with rules acceptable to all.

Equality of fortune aims to correct what it takes to be injustices generated by the natural order…. Equality of fortune is a distributive theory of equality: it conceives of equality as a pattern of distribution [of material goods]…. Social relationships are largely seen as instrumental to generating such patterns of distribution. 

By contrast, democratic equality regards two people as equal when each accepts the obligation to justify their actions by principles acceptable to the other, and in which they take mutual consultation, reciprocation, and recognition for granted…. Democratic egalitarians are fundamentally concerned with the relationships within which goods are distributed, not only with the distribution of goods. … Democratic equality is sensitive to the need to integrate the demands of equal recognition with those of equal distribution. Goods must be distributed according to principles and processes that express respect for all.

With regard to material goods, egalitarian principles must

identify certain goods to which all citizens must have effective access over the course of their whole lives. Some goods are more important from an egalitarian point of view than others.... 

They view private relations of domination, even those entered into by consent or contract, as violations of individual freedom…. 

[Libertarianism] neglects the importance of having the means to do what one wants…. Most of the things people want to do require participation in social activities, and hence communication and interaction with others. One cannot do these things if others make one an outcast….. The same point applies to a society in which property is so unequally distributed that some adults live in abject dependence on others, and so live at the mercy of others. Societies that permit the creation of outcasts and subordinate classes can be as repressive as any despotic regime.

Capabilities and Functionings 

Following the thinking of Amartya Sen, Anderson supports a distinction between “capabilities” and “functionings.” 

A person's capabilities consist of the sets of functionings she can achieve, given the personal, material, and social resources available to her. Capabilities measure not actually achieved functionings, but a person's freedom to achieve valued functionings…. Egalitarians should seek equality for all in the space of capabilities….

Negatively, people are entitled to whatever capabilities are necessary to enable them to avoid or escape entanglement in oppressive social relationships. Positively, they are entitled to the capabilities necessary for functioning as an equal citizen in a democratic state…. 

Egalitarians also aim at abolishing private relations of domination,… enabling all citizens to stand as equals to one another in civil society, and this requires that careers be open to talents [no glass ceilings].… [However,] democratic equality…does not support comprehensive [or universal] equality in the space of capabilities. Being a poor card player does not make one oppressed….

Citizenship involves “functioning as a political agent—voting, engaging in political speech, petitioning government, and so forth.” But it also involves “participating as an equal in civil society…. including participation in the economy.” The civil rights movement affirmed that understanding.

Democratic equality only guarantees access to certain levels of functioning. “Individuals are free to choose to function at a lower level than they are guaranteed.”

It is legitimate to “make access to certain functionings...conditional upon working for them, provided that citizens have effective access to those conditions.”

Because “one's capabilities are [in part] a function...of one's mutable traits, social relations and norms, and the structure of opportunities, public goods, and public spaces,” 

 egalitarian political movements have never lost sight of the whole range of targets of egalitarian assessment. For example, feminists work to overcome the internal obstacles to choice—self-abnegation, lack of confidence, and low self-esteem—that women often face from internalizing norms of femininity…. No mere redistribution of divisible resources can secure the freedoms these groups seek.

Of course, democratic equality is also concerned with the distribution of divisible resources…. They are therefore entitled to different amounts of resources so they can enjoy freedom as equals….

Equals in Cooperative Production

The economy is “a system of cooperative, joint production.” 

Everyone's productive contribution [is] dependent on what everyone else is doing…. In performing their role in an efficient division of labor, each worker is regarded as an agent for the people who consume their products and for the other workers who, in being thereby relieved from performing that role, become free to devote their talents to [other] productive activities…. Democratic equality acknowledges everyone's profound mutual dependency in modern society…. The conception of society as a system of cooperation provides a safety net through which even the imprudent are never forced to fall.  

The redistribution of material resources by itself is not sufficient to achieve full equality. How the economy is organized is also important. “The principles that govern the division of labor and the assignment of particular benefits to the performance of roles in the division of labor must be acceptable to everyone.”

Validating care for dependents is critical.

Adults have moral responsibilities to take care of dependents…. Democratic equality says that no one should be reduced to an inferior status because they fulfill obligations to care for others.

Some degree of income inequality can be acceptable.

Once all citizens enjoy a decent set of freedoms, sufficient for functioning as an equal in society, income inequalities beyond that point do not seem so troubling in themselves. The degree of acceptable income inequality would depend in part on how easy it was to convert income into status inequality—differences in the social bases of self-respect, influence over elections, and the like. The stronger the barriers against commodifying social status, political influence, and the like, the more acceptable are significant income inequalities….

Anderson is relentless in her rejection of policies that demean, in part because those who are demeaned often internalize those judgments.

Society need not try to make the impossible and insulting judgment of whether low-wage workers are there by choice or by the fact that their meagre native endowments prevent them from getting better work. Instead, it focuses on appreciation for the roles that low-wage workers fill. In performing routine, low-skill tasks, these workers free other people…. 

Equality, Responsibility, and Paternalism

Her critique of disabling paternalism, which pervades society generally and social services in particular, is incisive and important. 

Under democratic equality, citizens refrain from making intrusive, moralizing judgments about how people ought to have used the opportunities open to them or about how capable they were of exercising personal responsibility…. The sole exception to this principle concerns criminal conduct…. Even convicted criminals, however, retain their status as equal human beings.

However, egalitarians still need to “uphold personal responsibility, if only to avoid bankrupting the state.” That can be achieved in part by insuring individuals only against the loss of guaranteed goods, that “set of capabilities necessary to functioning as a free and equal citizen.” 

Individuals must bear many other losses on their own…. Individuals thus have plenty to lose from their irresponsible conduct, and therefore have an incentive to behave prudently…. Individuals still have to exercise responsible agency…. Democratic equality guarantees the education needed to know and deliberate about one's options, and the social bases of self-respect.

As individuals are responsible to society, so too is society responsible to individuals.

These [capabilities] are the ones citizens are obligated to provide one another in common. But why can't any given citizen waive his right to guaranteed health care, in return for its welfare equivalent?... [Because] we are not permitted to abandon people dying by the side of the road, just because they gave us permission to deny them emergency medical care. 

The capabilities citizens need to function as equals in civil society count...not because everyone finds these capabilities equally valuable, but because reasonable people can recognize that these form a legitimate basis for making moral claims on one another

These issues bear on the debate about requiring individuals to pay taxes for universal health insurance. Anderson’s comments are incisive.

Democratic equality passes no judgment on whether it would be prudent or imprudent for any given individual to purchase health insurance. It tells the person who would not purchase insurance for himself: "You have a moral worth that no one can disregard. We recognize this worth in your inalienable right to our aid in an emergency. You are free to refuse this aid once we offer it. But this freedom does not absolve you of the obligation to come to the aid of others when their health needs are urgent. Since this is an obligation we all owe to our fellow citizens, everyone shall be taxed for this good, which we shall provide to everyone. This is part of your rightful claim as an equal citizen." 

Victims of Bad Brute Luck

How society responds to “the congenitally disabled, ugly, and stupid” is a matter of justice. According to Anderson, “democratic equality…would not compensate them for all of the miseries they face” and it would not rely on “subjective measures” of welfare, which “invite all the wrong thoughts on the part of the abled.”

Subjective measures of people's condition generate either pity for the disabled or reluctance to consider their claims of justice. The way to escape this dilemma is to take seriously what the disabled are actually complaining about. They do not ask that they be compensated for the disability itself. Rather, they ask that the social disadvantages others impose on them for having the disability be removed….

[The disabled] resent being cast as poster children for the abled to pity, because they do not want to have to cast their claims as appeals to the condescending benevolence of kindly patrons…..

Democratic equality uses objective tests to define unjust disadvantages and satisfactory remedies.

They match the remedy to the injustice: if the injustice is exclusion, the remedy is inclusion…. Objective standards...locate the unjust disadvantage of disability in the way others treat the disabled….

Democratic equality does not pass judgment on the worth of people's native endowments, and so has nothing special to say to the stupid and the untalented. Instead, it focuses on the productive roles that people occupy, in recognition of the fact that society attaches economic benefits to performance in a role rather than to the possession of talent in itself…. 

Talent brings noneconomic advantages as well, such as the admiration of others. Democratic equality finds no injustice in this advantage, because one doesn't need to be admired to be able to function as an equal citizen….

What about the ugly?... Democratic equality...asks whether the norms based on such judgments are oppressive…. An alternative would be to persuade everyone to adopt new norms of acceptable physical appearance, so that people with the birth "defect" were no longer treated as pariahs….. 

However, under certain  conditions, “the better option may well be to supply the plastic surgery.” Regardless, in either case, “focusing on equality as a social relationship” rather than as merely a matter of distributing material goods enables us to see we have a choice.

The Obligations of Citizens

In conclusion, Anderson asserts that “people may not claim rights without accepting corresponding obligations to others.” Democratic equality “conceives of justice as a matter of obligations.” Rights “do not depend on arbitrary variations in individual tastes.” They are not defined by “the satisfaction of subjective preferences.” 

They are agreed on democratically and objectified. These judgments are applied to human arrangements. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies.” 

Democratic equality

locates unjust deficiencies in the social order rather than in people's innate endowments. [It] offers a way of conceiving and harnessing human diversity so that it benefits everyone and is recognized as doing so.

Democratic equality...allows us to integrate the demands of equal distribution and equal respect, ensuring that the principles by which we distribute goods, however equal resulting patterns may be, do not in fact express contemptuous pity for the beneficiaries of egalitarian concern.

Democratic equality thus offers a superior way to understand the expressive demands of justice—the demand to act only on principles that express respect for everyone.

With her attempt to help refocus academic theorizing, Anderson promotes “the promise of reestablishing connections [between academia and] actually existing egalitarian movements.” And with this effort, she aims to “articulate the demands of genuine egalitarian movements in a framework that offers some hope of broader appeal.”

The September 2019 Democratic debate reveals that egalitarian values have not yet seeped into the higher ranks of the Democratic Party (and certainly is not seen in Trumpism). During the course of that nearly three-hour debate, none of the candidates once used the word “equality.” The only use of “equal” was in reference to pay raises for teachers. None affirmmed the importance of “equal respect.” And the only use of the word “obligation” contradicts Anderson’s worldview: Joe Biden said, “The only obligation that really matters, the most important thing is family.”

Some hope can be found, however, in the horizontal values being advanced by young people, as I discuss in Building a “Full-Stack Society” with “New Power,” a review of New Power:  How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. The seeds are being sown. Maybe they’ll flower soon.