Inequality cheat sheet

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Non-quantitative post below the jump.

Mike Konzal has linked to Scanlon’s “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality” and discussed it in the context of Occupy Wall Street. It’s relevant to our discussion of inequality because it demonstrates there are left-liberal reasons to reduce inequality that aren’t directly quantitative. From Scanlon:

The elimination of inequalities may be required in order to

  1. Relieve suffering or severe deprivation
  2. Prevent stigmatizing differences in status
  3. Avoid unacceptable forms of power or domination
  4. Preserve the equality of starting places which is required by procedural fairness.

In addition, 5. Procedural fairness sometimes supports a case for equality of outcomes.

The arguments above don’t rely on quantitative evidence. That’s not to say that quantitative evidence can’t play a role in making a case against inequality. It’s useful to know, and hard to answer, how much suffering and stigmatisation could be relieved with a flatter income distribution. It’s useful to know what kinds of interventions lead to better outcomes according to these criteria. Is more progressive taxation and an general increase in government spending enough? Or does the spending need to be targeted?

Arguing that inequality leads to some kinds of bad outcomes doesn’t require numbers. If you want to argue that inequality affects, say, life expectancy, you probably do need numbers. But the numbers you need are on the individual level. It’s implausible that inequality affects rich and poor in the same way. Quantifying the effect of inequality, over and above the effect of personal income, is crucial.


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