May 4, 2008

why should society limit economic inequality?

The new NFL Lincoln-Douglas resolution states,
Resolved: Limiting economic inequality ought to be a more important social goal than maximizing economic freedom.
This raises the fundamental question: why should society have an interest in limiting economic inequality?

There are several approaches; I'll outline a few below.

1. It's good for society.
This type of argument is largely empirical. The affirmative would show how economic inequality causes societal ailments, and, thusly, how limiting economic inequality is a social good.

If you want to take this line of argument, look for research to show tangible or measurable harms of economic inequality, while the negative would dismiss those claims as tangential or merely correlative.

2. It's the just thing to do.
This is where Marxist/leftist/egalitarian folks come in. Whether economic inequality causes tangible harm is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, all are due equal access to economic resources--in classic Marxist terms, "control of the means of production." Whether this comes from socialist practices--impressively high taxation to fund public services and redistribute wealth "voluntarily"--or through enforced redistribution in small-c communist fashion is a matter of practicality or taste (and of great debate in leftist circles.) Ultimately, any gap between the haves and have-nots is a priori unacceptable.

3. It's the right thing to do.
In a Rawlsian conception, it's not equality that ultimately matters, but rights secured through a social compact drawn up behind the veil of ignorance. Inequality is only permissible insofar as it benefits the worst off--the maximin principle--and so limiting inequality can be justified as a worthy social goal when it is necessary to ameliorate inequalities based on the whims of history, nature, or luck--as long as, per #1 above, the inequality perpetuates some sort of mitigable harm.

Comparing all three.
#1 leads to a cost-benefit analysis. If economic inequality's harm outweighs the harm of reducing economic freedom, vote Aff.

#2 creates perhaps the strongest potential clash between affirmative and negative world views. To a Marxist, "maximizing economic freedom" is simply not a primary goal, social or otherwise.

#3 doesn't necessarily swing toward either side, though it does provide a philosophical warrant for the practical approach of #1.

Note: this arena of political philosophy is not my specialty, so I welcome your criticism.


Mark said...

In Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion he makes the claim (supported by statistical research/analysis) that economic and class/ethnic inequality are not correlated with civil war/unrest, which counters what is I think the common assumed notion that such inequalities lead to civil unrest and violence. That is the common notion is not supported by the facts.

The point is that this is knocks some wind out of some of the sails for the resolution.

Jim Anderson said...

Not entirely, for a two reasons.

1. The resolution compares limiting inequality and maximizing economic freedom. Negating the resolution might have worse consequences, even if the problems of economic inequality aren't as bad as we might think.

2. The a priori egalitarian side of things doesn't depend on empirical harm, but on economic equality as a principle.

Lastly, not having read TBB, I'm curious as to whether inequality across societies is what matters, rather than inequality within societies. Which could be an interesting reading of the resolution as well.