Why Should We Care About Inequality?

By Conor Clarke

I took Conor F's advice from yesterday and read Will Wilkinson's new Cato paper on inequality, which basically argues that the level, effects and origins of American inequality are not as bad as some people on the left (read: Paul Krugman) claim. The paper has a lot of great arguments, and I'm open to being convinced that the level and effects of American inequality are often overstated. (It does seem to me that there's nothing inherently unjust about any given level of inequality, although I do think there's some evidence, weak and tentative though it is, that inequality makes people less happy than they otherwise would be.) I also agree with Will that inequality of opportunity is the bigger cause for alarm.

But generally, Will's bar doesn't strike me as a high enough one to clear.

When I think about inequality, I think about John Rawls' difference principle: Inequalities are only justified when they lead to the greatest benefit for the least well-off members of society. (Simplifying about 800 pages of tedium: This is because we do not deserve the social positions we start with. No one meaningfully "deserves" to be born rich or poor, or intelligent or dense, or with a capacity for hard work or risk taking.) That's not a moral principle that Will has to accept, of course. But for someone like me to be convinced that the current level of inequality is justified, I want to be convinced of more than that the lives of the poorest members of our society are getting better. I want to convinced that they are the best possible lives.

For what it's worth, the difference principle can still justify plenty of inequality: I think capitalism is wonderful because it has tremendous benefits for the least well-off, even though it creates inequalities. But inequality is not acceptable by default. So my question for Will is this: Do you think the present level of inequality gives the least well-off members of our society their best possible lives?