Olof Palme and the egalitarian deliberative constraint


Pictured: Olof Palme in 1968

A few days ago, I wrote about the basis of the Swedish Social Democrats’ economic and social policy in an ideal of egalitarian social relationships. While I was reading today, another striking illustration of the influence of this conception of equality jumped out at me.

According to Elizabeth Anderson, relational egalitarians reject the “compensatory” justifications for redistribution to which distributive egalitarians appeal. The view that disadvantaged persons need to be compensated is rooted in pity, an attitude which is fundamentally at odds with relationship on a footing of equality. Instead, relational egalitarians justify redistribution by reference to a principle of aid (rooted in compassion and solidarity rather than pity) and the importance of maintaining relations of equality between members of society. What do relations of equality actually involve? One crucial element — the egalitarian deliberative constraint — is summarized by Samuel Scheffler in “The Practice of Equality” :

In a relationship that is conducted on a footing of equality, each person accepts that the other person’s equally important interests — understood broadly to include the person’s needs, values, and preferences — should play an equally significant role in influencing decisions made within the context of the relationship. Moreover, each person has a normally effective disposition to treat the other’s interests accordingly. If you and I have an egalitarian relationship, then I have a standing disposition to treat your strong interests as playing just as significant a role as mine in constraining our decisions and influencing what we will do. And you have a reciprocal disposition with regard to my interests. In addition, both of us normally act on these dispositions. This means that each of our equally important interests constrains our joint decisions to the same extent. We can call this the egalitarian deliberative constraint. It is a distinctively egalitarian element in the complex ideal of an egalitarian relationship.

And now here’s something from The Political Theory of Swedish Social Democracy by Tim Tilton:

Olof Palme, elaborating [the principle of equality] in a speech to the Swedish National Association of the Handicapped in 1985, argued that organizing society so as to minimize the difficulties of the handicapped was not a matter of charity or even of ‘compensating’ the handicapped. Rather, he said, ‘it is a matter of letting their demands and needs be as self-evident for social planning as the needs of other more “established” citizens’. (p. 218)

Palme’s remarks anticipate Scheffler’s formulation of the egalitarian deliberative constraint and its application to matters of distributive justice. He seems to clearly endorse the idea that aid to persons with disabilities at the very least is dictated by the relational conception of equality shaped by the egalitarian deliberative constraint, and not — as distributive egalitarians would have it — by the goal of compensating people for undeserved disadvantages.


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