The paradox of the paradox of redistribution

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The paradox of redistribution* refers to the fact that welfare states in which a greater proportion of spending goes to universal programs tend to be more redistributive than welfare states in which a greater proportion of spending goes to targeted programs. If programs are evaluated one by one, it might seem that targeted programs will in almost every instance make the poor better off (not counting programs that deliver public goods* like environmental protection, law enforcement and national defence). But the paradox of redistribution suggests that the poor will actually be better off when targeted programs are a relatively small proportion of overall spending. Effectively targeting the welfare state at the poor means giving up targeting in the design of many of the individual programs that collectively constitute the welfare state.

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Chart from Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy

The paradox of redistribution only goes so far. It does not tell us that all programs ought to be universal rather than targeted. That conclusion would be absurd, given that some programs are needed to address special needs that not everyone has; it is not possible even in principle for such programs to be universal (unless they are conceived of as a form of insurance; regardless of this view’s merits, it is incompatible with the definition of universalism from which the paradox of redistribution arises). Nor does the paradox tell us which programs ought to be universal and which ought to be targeted. It does, however, mean that the efficiency of targeting in a particular case is not dispositive with respect to the wisdom of targeting in that case. If our standard of justice demands that we design the welfare state so that on the whole it provides the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, it may be prudent to design some programs according to other criteria.

This raises a problem for those who categorically reject means testing (i.e. income or wealth targeting) as a matter of principle rather than political prudence. If universality is a fundamental principle of justice, it is unjust to give priority to the poor. But as a matter of fact, the paradox of redistribution shows that welfare states that incorporate a greater degree of universality do give priority to the poor. If giving priority to the poor is unjust, then we should adopt a less redistributive welfare state. And the way to do this, apparently, is to make more programs targeted at the poor. Thus it appears that no feasible welfare state is consistent with the categorical rejection of income and wealth targeting as a matter of principle. Call this the paradox of the paradox of redistribution.

*Thanks to Luc Turgeon for referring me to this fascinating paper by Olivier Jacques and Alain Noël.
**In the technical sense of nonrival, nonexcludable goods.

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Is Old Age Security a universal program? (Response to Walkom)

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Baseless accusations of infidelity to party principles? That’s a paddlin’

At the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom has a column describing Jagmeet Singh as “unorthodox” due to his support for a substantially increased, income tested seniors’ benefit (the Canada Seniors Guarantee). In Walkom’s view, this policy would mark a departure from the NDP’s traditional commitment to universal social programs. It would also conflict with the NDP Policy Book’s commitment to “maintaining the universality of Old Age Security.” However, Walkom also admits that Old Age Security is already an income tested program. Benefits are clawed back so that high-income OAS recipients must eventually return all payments to the government.

How can Old Age Security be income tested and universal? The only plausible response, I think, is that OAS can be understood as a form of insurance against poverty in old age. This insurance policy covers every single Canadian, because any Canadian threatened by poverty in old age is eligible to receive OAS payments. In this respect, OAS is a universal program, but it is income tested because of the very nature of the risk it insures against (i.e. low income in old age).

This raises a problem for Walkom’s critique. The NDP’s commitment to maintaining the universality of OAS is only coherent if OAS is in fact currently a universal program. If OAS counts as a universal program in virtue of providing universal insurance against poverty in old age, then Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee must count as a universal program as well. Just like OAS, it provides universal insurance against poverty in old age, albeit with more generous payments. So if the NDP has a coherent policy on universality and the OAS, Singh has not in fact departed from that policy. If, on the other hand, OAS is not a universal program, the NDP does not have a coherent policy on universality and the OAS from which to depart. In neither case can Singh’s proposed reform of seniors’ benefits be characterized plausibly as out of step with the traditions of the NDP.

Incommensurable values and moral revisionism in Mulgan’s theory

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In a previous post on Tim Mulgan’s Purpose in the Universe: The Moral and Metaphysical Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, I argued that the moral argument for AP seems to be self-undermining. Confidence in certain moral convictions is needed to justify objectivism about value; objectivism about value, in turn, is needed to justify AP. But if AP is true, it seems that we should not be confident in any of our moral convictions. And if AP implies extreme moral skepticism, Mulgan’s argument falls apart.

I think this objection can be avoided, but only at some cost to Mulgan’s revisionist ambitions for a moral theory consistent with AP. The saving move is to allow multiple incommensurable values. Mulgan follows Joseph Raz in defining incommensurable values as follows: “A and B are incommensurable if it is neither true that one is better than the other nor true that they are of equal value.”

Suppose that the objective values are incommensurable and include both human-centred values like virtue, pleasure and justice and non-human-centred values like beauty, intelligibility, and the elegance of natural law. Because these values are incommensurable, each would play a role in selecting a universe to actualize (either directly, as in axiarchic forms of AP, or indirectly, as in theistic forms). Only universes that instantiate all of these values would be actualized, and we know from our experience of this world that a beautiful, intelligible and elegant universe that is also hospitable to human-centered values will certainly contain horrendous evils. So if values are incommensurable, we can take our convictions about human-centred and non-human-centred values at face value at both ends of the argument for AP.

Mulgan believes that AP implies a highly revisionist account of human morality; once we understand the true, non-human-centred order of values, our views on the right and the good must be radically revised. But Mulgan’s argument for AP only succeeds if AP’s moral implications are quite conservative. The truth of AP would actually make very little difference to the content of a correct moral theory, because the non-human-centred values do not come into conflict with familiar human-centred values. AP may explain the circumstances in which we find ourselves theorizing about morality, but it sheds no light on the object of that activity.

Against Parfit’s Time-Dependence Claim

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Parfit’s non-identity problem depends on what he refers to the Time-Dependence Claim (TDC). The TDC is a feature of certain theories of personal identity across possible histories. According to the TDC,

If any particular person had not been conceived when he was in fact conceived, it is in fact true that he would never have existed. (Reasons and Persons, p. 351)

Every human is grown from a particular egg cell and a particular spermatozoon. The timing of conception determines which egg will be fertilized by which spermatozoon. Different egg or spermatozoon, different human. So, different time, different human — at least, according to the TDC.

The non-identity problem needs only the TDC, not any particular account of personal identity, and there is no theory the follows uniquely from the TDC. Rather, Parfit thinks any credible theory of personal identity across possible histories must accept the TDC. Parfit supports this claim by negative argument, i.e. considering and rejecting a number of alternative theories of identity that are not dependent on the TDC. Without the TDC, all of these alternatives have unacceptable implications. He concludes that whatever the correct account of identity across possible histories turns out to be, it must include the TDC.

The views Parfit considers are as follows.

1. The Featureless Cartesian View. Identity is something like a featureless Cartesian ego or primitive thisness that does not depend on anything more fundamental. I am Stephen only in virtue of having this particular thisness. I could have had any parents, been born in any time or place, or had any number of other different characteristics. In principle, I could have been a rock!

Parfit rejects this view on the grounds that I could only be aware of my identity as a Cartesian ego if I am directly aware of this identity; because a Cartesian ego is a pure thisness, identity cannot be inferred from any other quality I might have. Because I could only be aware of my identity if I were directly aware, and I am not directly aware of my identity, I have no reason to believe the Featureless Cartesian View and thus I can reject it.

2. The Descriptive View. The identity of an individual depends on a list of necessary properties, but these properties do not include having been grown from a particular egg and spermatozoon.

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3. The Descriptive Name View. The identity of an individual depends on a list of necessary properties that would be given to describe a particular named individual. Parfit gives Kant as an example. In this world, Kant wrote a number of books including Critique of Pure Reason. Authorship of Critique of Pure Reason is a candidate for the list of necessary properties that Kant’s identity depends on. In any other world where some individual wrote Critique of Pure Reason, etc., that individual is Kant.

Both Descriptive Views have counterintuitive consequences. If one of Kant’s necessary properties is that he wrote Critique of Pure Reason, Parfit points out, then it is logically impossible that Kant could have died at an early age before writing any books at all. (A further difficulty, I think, is that this raises the equally thorny question of how we are to determine the identity of books across possible histories!) The Descriptive Views may be weakened so that authorship of Critique of Pure Reason, etc. is not a necessary feature of Kant, but it is peculiar to Kant. In any possible world where Critique of Pure Reason was authored, that author will have been Kant. Parfit’s objects that this leads to an unacceptable picture of human history in which the identities of individuals (like Kant) are supplied by impersonal historical facts (like the fact that there is a Critique of Pure Reason). Rather than explaining historical facts by reference to persons, we are forced to explain persons solely by reference to historical facts.

4. The Origin View. The identity of an individual depends on them having grown from particular sperm and egg cells. I am Stephen in virtue of having grown from two particular cells. I would exist in any world where an organism was grown from those particular cells, and I would not exist in any world where no organism grew from those particular cells. This is Parfit’s view.

This fourth view is no less troubling than the first three. The Origin View makes my identity dependent on the identities of particular sperm and egg cells. So what are the identity conditions of particular sperm and egg cells?

There are, again, four possibilities. Individual cells may not be a candidate for having Cartesian egos, but they are candidates for having thisnesses. This answer has all the same problems as the Featureless Cartesian View, and in fact it seems to entail the Featureless Cartesian View. If the Featureless Cartesian View is true, I could have been a rock. If it is true only of sperm and egg cells, they could have been rocks. If we accept the Origin View of personal identity and the Featureless Cartesian View of sperm and egg identity, I could have been a rock garden!

The Descriptive Views are not as obviously problematic, and I’m not sure it runs into the same problem as the Descriptive Views as applied to people. After all, we do not expect sperm and egg cells to possess historical agency. But no description will be able to identify particular cells without reference to the origins of those cells or the identities of the people they come from.

This leaves the Origin View. As applied to cells, I suppose this would mean that the identity of a particular cell depends on it being constituted by particular molecules. Different molecules, different cells. Different cells, different person. And now we need to know the identity conditions for molecules. It seems that this cycle would continue all the way down to the level of fundamental particles. This implies that individuals could not exist in worlds that were even slightly physically different from one another. The Origin View is inadequate as a theory of identity across possible histories because it denies the very possibility of identity across possible histories.

Parfit claims that this list of possible views is exhaustive. If this claim is false, he has failed to establish the Time-Dependence Claim. In fact, all of the views Parfit considers are unacceptable. There must be other alternatives. Until these alternatives have been explored, we should not accept the Time-Dependence Claim.

Even if the universe has a purpose, we can’t assume that we matter to it

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Unfortunately we can’t rule out that the possibility that the purpose of the universe is to be food for a space monster

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Tim Mulgan’s most recent book, Purpose in the Universe: the Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, in which he makes a case for the proposition that the universe has a non-human-centred purpose. In Mulgan’s view, the world is religiously ambiguous, meaning that reason and evidence do not decisively favour one religious view over all others. Atheism and theism can both be reasonable responses to the available evidence. In this book, Mulgan aims to defend the reasonableness of AP as a third option in a religiously ambiguous world.

Mulgan’s background is in moral philosophy, not metaphysics or philosophy of religion. Accordingly, he lays the foundation of the book’s argument by setting out a number of first order moral commitments. Prominent among these is the claim that we have stringent obligations not to harm future generations. In Mulgan’s view, the only kind of moral theory capable of accounting for the truth of this conviction is objective list consequentialism (I have previously responded to Mulgan’s criticism of contractualism on this score here and here). In an objective list consequentialist theory, consequences are assessed according to objective criteria, in contrast to subjective consequentialist theories like hedonistic or preference utilitarianism which assess consequences solely by reference to agents’ mental states.

With a set of first order moral commitments in hand, Mulgan makes a brief foray into meta-ethics. Mulgan does not think non-cognitivist theories (according to which moral language expresses only sentiments or imperatives which are merely disguised as propositions) can provide credible accounts of moral talk and moral thought. Everyday moral experience is most consistent with moral cognitivism. Cognitivists about morality believe that positive moral claims are truth-apt, meaning that they can be either true or false. Some cognitivists are nihilists (also sometimes called error theorists). Nihilists believe that all positive moral claims are false. But most cognitivists are moral realists, meaning that they believe some positive moral claims (i.e. at least one) are true.

Following J. L. Mackie, nihilists often appeal to the supposed metaphysical “queerness” of moral facts. But Mulgan’s strategy of building his argument off a set of reasonably secure convictions about right and wrong puts nihilism on the back foot. We have supreme confidence in first order moral judgments like “it is wrong to boil a baby for fun” (to use one of my teachers’ favourite examples), whereas we are rarely so secure in our metaphysical judgments. If moral facts seem queer given our metaphysical beliefs, we are better off revising our metaphysical beliefs rather than our moral beliefs. If this seems hard to swallow, Mulgan points out, it is not clear how the argument from queerness can be restricted to only rule out moral facts considered as a subset of normative facts more generally. If accepting the claim that moral facts are intolerably queer commits us to the more extreme position of “global normative nihilism”, which entails that there are no true positive claims about mathematical or logical truth on account of intolerable queerness, we can be even more confident in rejecting Mackie’s argument for nihilism.

However, Mulgan does think that the argument from queerness is getting at something very important. In his view, moral facts do seem to be intolerably queer in the context of a strictly naturalistic ontology. It follows that the presumption of strict or global naturalism which dominates contemporary meta-ethics ought to be abandoned. Morality, and normativity more broadly, is most at home in an ontology that includes non-natural or supernatural facts (by non-natural facts, Mulgan seems to have in mind sui generis normative facts, while supernatural facts denote facts about the divine such as the attributes or commands of a perfect being).

Having established that non-naturalism or supernaturalism can (at the very least) be reasonable, Mulgan is off to the races. Much of what follows falls under a wide-ranging survey of arguments for both theism and atheism, including classical and contemporary versions of ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for theism, and, on the atheist side, arguments from scale, religious diversity and (most importantly) evil. Mulgan argues that the theist arguments are only successful in establishing that there is a cosmic purpose, while atheist arguments can only succeed in establishing that human well-being is irrelevant to the cosmic purpose. Theists draw the further conclusion that there is a human-centred cosmic purpose, while atheists draw the further conclusion that there is no cosmic purpose at all. These further conclusions are not unreasonable, and they could very well be true. But the conclusions do not logically follow from the arguments deployed in their support. Taken together, the most compelling arguments for theism and atheism are at least as consistent with the thesis that there is a cosmic purpose to which human well-being is wholly irrelevant — in other words, ananthropocentric purposivism.

If we’re not relevant to the cosmic purpose, then what is? In theory, the possibilities are endless. Maybe we don’t matter, but some aliens do. Or perhaps the purpose of the universe is to realize some objective aesthetic value — the instantiation of the most beautiful physical theory, for example. When Leibniz proposed that this is the best of all possible worlds, the criterion of goodness he had in mind was nothing like what we would expect in a human centred morality; the best world according to God, Leibniz argued, is the world where the greatest diversity follows from the simplest laws.

In some respects, a non-human-centred morality makes a rather good fit with consequentialism. Consequentialism is often criticized for assessing consequences by means of aggregation of harm and well-being. Strict utilitarianism, for example, dictates that aggregate utility must always be increased, even when this would be better for no one — in fact, even when this would be worse for everyone. By indiscriminately summing utilities across distinct lives and taking only the sum of all utilities to have any direct moral importance, utilitarians are said to ignore the moral significance of the separateness of persons. AP helps support the consequentialist contention that persons simply do not have any moral significance to ignore. Consequences, impartially and impersonally assessed without any regard for the well-being of individual creatures, are all that matter according to the cosmic purpose.

At this point, however, I wonder if Mulgan begins to undermine the foundations of his own argument. His case for AP is cumulative, meaning that each step in the argument depends on the steps that have come before. The entire argument therefore depends on the reliability of the moral commitments he began with. These commitments are shaped by careful reflection about everyday human moral experience. But if AP is true, we should regard everyday human moral experience with extreme skepticism. There is no guarantee that there will be any points of contact between human moral experience and the real world of objective values; moral nihilism could very well be true with respect to humans! If we accept AP and consequently accept that a restricted moral nihilism may be true with respect to humans, then it’s not clear to me how we can have the degree of confidence in the existence of objective values that is necessary to make AP a reasonable proposition in the first place.

I expect that Mulgan will have anticipated and attempt to address this objection in the book’s final section, which he dedicates to constructing a moral theory consistent with AP. I’m really looking forward to tackling this section, but it’ll have to wait — my school library doesn’t have a copy of the book, and my inter-library loan period is up!

Related reading

Derek Parfit: “Why Anything? Why This?” Part 1 & Part 2
Tim Mulgan: “What if God is just not that into you?”
Tim Mulgan in conversation with Beverley Clack and Jonathan Cottingham. Moderated by Peter Dennis. (Audio)

Politics is not just a contest in domination

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At Current Affairs, Nathan J. Robinson has responded to Jeet Heer’s complaint that a certain segment of the left is driven by “a vision of politics as a contest in domination”. Robinson’s response is more or less that politics is a contest in domination, so the complaint doesn’t stick. While I don’t want to defend Heer’s column, I do think Robinson’s response merits some pushback.

As Robinson notes, people in society hold conflicting values and interests, and it is not always possible or desirable to accommodate all values and interests. There is no compromise to be struck between racists and anti-racists, for example. For racists to win, anti-racists must lose, and vice versa. Politics, in Robinson’s view, is simply the struggle for dominance between fundamentally antagonistic values and interests. It makes no sense to complain about politics being conducted as a pure struggle for dominance, because pure struggle for dominance is what politics is. Rather than trying to twist politics into something that it’s not (and cannot be), we should focus on what’s really at stake, i.e. which values and interests should properly dominate.

Of course Robinson is right to say that some political values and interests ought to take priority over others and there’s nothing inherently aberrant about adversarial politics. I’m not sure this really constitutes a proper response to Heer, who seems to have been complaining about domination of and by people, not values, but never mind that. Still, Robinson overreaches with the suggestion that politics is merely the continuation of war by other means. In fact, viewing politics as a realm of pure conflict renders many perfectly ordinary political phenomena inexplicable.

Robinson anticipates the objection that his view cannot explain why there are such things as political coalitions. Not so, he says; coalitions are useful tools in the struggle. If participating in a coalition confers an advantage over the enemy, then one should participate in a coalition. This response is not satisfactory. Robinson’s view explains why it would be prudent to form or join a coalition. But how could coalitions possibly exist if politics is only about conflict?

I understand a coalition to be an alliance of groups with both shared and conflicting values, interests and priorities. Members commit to pursuing shared ends while compromising on points of disagreement. Such compromises may take a number of forms. One approach is simply for coalition partners to compete for power within the coalition’s internal structure; in some cases, as in certain political parties, this competition may be highly organized and include a system for official recognition of internal factions. Another is for the coalition to simply avoid taking positions on areas of disagreement between the coalition partners. In some cases, the coalition may try to strike a balance between each side’s preferred position. Or one faction or another might just give up on the issue entirely.

So if coalitions exist, then groups with opposing interests and values can and do interact in a mode other than that of unrestricted warfare. That means that if some group or other is criticized for treating politics as warfare, it will have to find some excuse other than the claim that all politics is warfare, because that claim is clearly false.

A couple of final remarks. First, it’s a little distracting that the term domination is deployed so heavily here, because in political theory, domination tends to be a morally loaded term implying subjection to arbitrary power. Robinson cannot be using domination in this sense, because he thinks correct values (which are by definition non-arbitrary) can dominate. What he has in mind is really power rather than domination, I think.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the view that politics is unrestricted warfare between incompatible values implies that a society ordered by the correct values would have no need for politics. At the root of the ostensibly hardheaded, no nonsense view of politics as warfare, it turns out, is a kind of prissy anti-politics that casts all political disagreement and conflict as a symptom of social disease. I do not find this characterization remotely plausible.

Contractualism, reciprocity and the invention of warp drive

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In Purpose in the Universe, Tim Mulgan writes:

Reciprocity, sentiment, and mutual cooperation may provide good foundations for intra-generational ethics. But intergenerational contracts face two barriers: Parfit’s non-identity problem and the impossibility of reciprocal interaction between present people and distant future people. How can we begin to imagine contracts, bargains, or cooperative schemes involving future people whose existence and identity depend on what we decide and whose fate is entirely in our hands? (p. 24)

I discussed the threat that the non-identity problem supposedly poses to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualism in a previous post, which you can find here. I’m not very satisfied with that post, but I stand by the main idea. The key point is that Parfit’s non-identity problem depends on a criterion of identity that not even Parfit accepts. At worst, the non-identity problem only bars contractualists from accepting a certain criterion of identity. But because contractualism presupposes no particular theory of personal identity, this restriction poses little threat to contractualism as such.

Having dealt with the non-identity issue elsewhere, here I want to discuss the second barrier Mulgan thinks contractualists face in explaining obligations to future people: the impossibility of reciprocal interaction between present and (distant) future people. In his earlier book, Ethics for a Broken World, casts a very broad net, with the claim that all social contract theories require reciprocal interaction between rational self-interested parties. However, this is not true of Scanlon’s social contract ethics. The parties to Scanlon’s hypothetical contract are explicitly not defined by motives of rational self-interest, and they are not stipulated to be engaged in reciprocal interaction. They are reasonable persons motivated to find mutually justifiable principles of conduct. (What We Owe to Each Other, p. 191) The source of this motivation is the value of a relationship structured by such principles — a relationship of mutual recognition. (p. 162)

However, Scanlon’s contractualism is not an account of political justice, and if we acknowledge the moral urgency of future people’s interests, questions of intergenerational political justice are especially pressing (for just the same reasons that questions of political justice among contemporaries are especially pressing). A theory of justice generated from within Scanlon’s more general account of what we owe to each other may also turn out not to assume reciprocal interaction, but because such a theory does not yet exist, it cannot be cited in defence of contractualism’s ability to explain obligations of justice to future people. And existing contractualist theories of justice do tend to assume reciprocal interaction. So contractualists must show that there can be reciprocity between past and future.

In his 2012 Tanner Lectures on Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler explores the significance of what he (somewhat cheekily) calls “the afterlife”: the fact that other people will continue to live value-laden lives after we ourselves have perished. Scheffler argues that our horror at scenarios like that of Children of Men, in which human reproduction has (non-voluntarily) ended and the species will therefore soon become extinct, is best explained by a relationship of dependency between the value of our lives and the value of future lives. Apart from purely hedonistic pursuits, almost all our activities and projects would seem largely pointless if we knew we were among the last generations. But our own deaths do not similarly threaten the value of our lives (indeed, in the third lecture included in the volume, Scheffler argues that our deaths are a necessary condition for the value of our lives). We have self-interested reasons, Scheffler argues, to be more concerned about the survival of complete strangers in the distant future than about our own personal survival!

A vivid example of how this works can be seen in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the crew of the Enterprise travel back in time to 2063, shortly before the invention of the warp drive that made possible the thriving interstellar civilization of the future. In their own time, the warp drive’s inventor, Zefram Cochrane, is revered as one of humanity’s greatest heroes, and there are schools, statues and starships named after the man. But the crew is dismayed to find that the Zefram Cochrane of 2063 is a selfish, uncouth boozehound, not the visionary scientist found in their history books:

You wanna know what my vision is? Dollar signs, money! I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity. You think I wanna see the stars? I don’t even like to fly! I take trains! I built this ship so I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women.

A jaded survivor of Earth’s catastrophic final world war, Cochrane seems to see nothing potentially valuable in his life and works aside from opportunity for individual hedonistic pursuits. But meeting the crew of the Enterprise helps change his perspective. Cochrane will not live to see the founding of the great multi-species federation on whose behalf the Enterprise goes voyaging. But thanks to the visitors from the future, he does get a glimpse of the world that lies ahead for humanity, and it seems to change his perspective on his own life. The turning point is not finding out that he is honoured as a great man in the distant future (in fact, this causes him some distress), but rather finding out what that future is like.

I don’t think you need to be the inventor of the warp drive for this change in perspective to be reasonable. If there is no future — or at least no meaningful future — for humanity, there is very little to care about in the here and now; only if there is a meaningful future can we reasonably value much of what we actually do value. The value of our lives depends on the lives and labours of people in our distant future, just as the value of Zefram Cochrane’s life so clearly depended on the lives and labours of people in his distant future.

By itself, Scheffler’s argument reveals only prudential reasons for us to be concerned about the future long after our deaths. But this prudential concern for the distant future gives the people of distant future a measure of control over how our lives go. If future people make a very bad mess of things, that is very bad for present people. If future people do a very good job, that is very good for present people. Reciprocal interaction is possible after all. So the reciprocity condition is satisfied; our prudential reasons for caring about the people of the distant future can ground further, moral or justice-based reasons for caring about the distant future, via a social contract.

Why a fair economy must be more equal: a response to Sean Speer

takemeout_242.jpgA man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork…. Looks, throws, catches, hustles – part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one! Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? “I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto Sun ran an op-ed proclaiming the end of the debate of on income inequality, and although I normally wouldn’t bother with the Sun, this column was written by Sean Speer, a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Speer’s credentials and affiliations lend him more credibility than most Sun columnists, so I think it’s worth taking the time to go over some grave defects of this piece.

Speer bases his column on a recent literature review by Yale psychologists Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin and Paul Bloom, which found that people do not find economic inequality intrinsically objectionable. Inequality is objectionable only when it is unfair, and inequality is not always unfair. As the authors acknowledge, there is a large body of research supporting the claim that people do object to inequality as such. The problem with previous studies, they argue, is that test subjects lack the kind of information about each other that could justify unequal shares — information such as relative need, desert, merit, or bargaining power. So these studies only show a weak presumption in favour of equality; departures from strict equality will be objectionable if they are arbitrary, but not all such departures are arbitrary. When subjects have access to information that could justify unequal shares, they are happy to accept certain inequalities as fair. So it seems that fairness, not equality, is what people fundamentally care about.

From this finding, Speer draws the conclusion that people do not find economic inequality objectionable, and the further conclusion that economic inequality is not objectionable. Redistributive policies are misguided; instead, governments should seek only to equalize opportunities. All parties can share the goal of promoting social mobility, and each one has different ideas for how to promote it. Economic inequality, on the other hand, is truly polarizing; the left and the right do not even agree that there is a problem that needs solving. So the focus on economic inequality locks us into an unproductive partisan standoff, while shifting the focus to social mobility allows for a more promising policy-oriented debate around shared priorities.

Speer makes a number of surprising leaps here, but I’d like to focus on just two. The first is the claim that existing material inequalities are acceptable as long as they are fair, and they will be fair just as long as there is equal opportunity. In fact, Starmans, Sheskin and Bloom acknowledge grounds beyond fairness for objecting to existing inequalities, such as concern about poverty. Even if the current level of inequality is fair, concern about poverty gives us a good reason to make people’s economic status more equal. As long as this more equal distribution would also be fair, we have decisive reasons to prefer greater equality.

So, would the more equal distribution be fair? Speer provides only a single criterion of fairness: equality of opportunity. It follows that any distribution consistent with equality of opportunity — including a strictly equal distribution of income and wealth — is potentially a fair distribution. That means selecting equal opportunity as the sole criterion of fairness doesn’t close the debate on income inequality at all; if anything, it blows the topic wide open.

But is equal opportunity really all there is to fairness? This is hard to believe. A coin toss would give a prosecutor and an accused criminal equal opportunity to achieve their preferred outcome, but a defendant whose fate was determined by a coin toss could hardly be said to have received a fair trial. Fairness demands the impartial assessment of relevant reasons for choosing some outcome. A coin flip is, in this context, impartial but arbitrary rather than fair because it fails to take any of the relevant reasons into account. A fair procedure for determining guilt and punishment must be shaped by the need to establish a decisive connection between the strength of the available evidence and the conviction of the accused. Likewise, any number of economic arrangements that would satisfy equality of opportunity may yet be criticized on grounds of fairness because they fail to take relevant reasons into account, or give undue weight to some (nevertheless relevant) reasons over others. In fact, this is one of the key findings of Starmans, Sheskin and Bloom’s paper. If equal opportunity were all that fairness required, strictly equal distributions could not have been rejected on grounds of fairness.

Under the assumption that fairness requires only equal opportunity, Speer concludes that fairness does not require redistribution. However, he soon contradicts himself, citing the relatively egalitarian Nordic states as models for Canada to follow in pursuit of greater social mobility. Moreover, one of his favoured social mobility-enhancing policies turns out to be redistribution via the child benefit system. Equality of opportunity depends on more equality of outcome and thus more redistribution after all. But as we’ve seen, there is more to fairness than equal opportunity. So does fairness require even more redistribution than equal opportunity? If so, why?

Recall that the authors find a common thread between studies that find support for a presumption of equality in that “recipients are indistinguishable with regard to considerations such as need and merit.” In many cases where we must decide on the distribution of some good, recipients are distinguishable on these bases. It’s not so hard to pick which employees should get a raise or which runners should get a medal, for example. But economic justice concerns the distribution of goods on the scale of an entire society. And at this level, recipients are indistinguishable from one another. Even if a free society could come to an agreement on criteria of need and merit in this context, it could not hope to reliably track each person’s need and merit and remunerate them accordingly — at least not without abolishing the market economy and instituting a totalitarian surveillance state. So fairness does justify a presumption of strict economic equality after all.

However, this presumption only establishes an egalitarian baseline. Departures from the egalitarian baseline cannot be justified on grounds of individual desert, but they can be justified on other grounds. Market economies are more productive, efficient and innovative than the alternatives, and these virtues depend on the signalling and incentive effects of an inequality-generating price system. As long as everyone is made better off by departure from equality, everyone has reason to endorse such departures. Fair inequalities in the overall distribution of income and wealth in society, then, will be those that conform to something like John Rawls’s difference principle, which requires that economic inequalities maximally benefit the least-advantaged group in society. Unless the least-advantaged group in our society is already as well off as it can be — which strikes me as extremely implausible — a good deal more redistribution is certainly needed to bring about a fair economy.

Speer’s frustration with the “tired” debate on income inequality is understandable, given how little progress on the issue there has been in recent years. But the findings he cites tend to support rather than undermine the issue’s importance by showing that concern about inequality is derivative of a more fundamental concern for fairness. This explains the importance of equality; it does not show that equality is unimportant. Because a focus on equal opportunity alone fails to fully respond to the value of fairness, and cannot in any case be achieved without a greater degree of economic equality, Speer’s call to abandon redistribution and pursue social mobility is deeply misguided.