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One of the most discussed topics on this board is inequality. Whether it is inequality of wealth, political power, job opportunities, freedom to choose how one lives, education, or resources, equality is constantly discussed. But one thing that we have not discussed (at least in recent memory) is why we should care about inequality. It is just accepted that a more equal society is a better society. In this topic, I would like to discuss inequality as its own issue. By examining what we mean when we talk about inequalities that should be corrected, I think that we will be in a better position to discuss inequalities among all the conventional axises.
At the outset, I think it is important to recognize that there are limits to the scope of inequalities that we should want to eliminate. For example, even if we decided that we wanted wealth distribution to be exactly equal, and took all the world's wealth and parceled it out evenly, people would quickly wind up with different amounts of wealth as they traded among themselves. There is also the problem of subjective weighting, since even if everyone had an equal amount of all resources, people who valued those resources more would effectively be richer. These types of problems can all be resolved, but the cost is very high, since we would have to constantly assess people's relative levels of happiness and redistribute. If the redistribution happens on a regular basis then we may well wind up with less wealth to redistribute, since constant equalization will take away the incentive to work towards success.
Another concern is that there is more to the world than wealth, and people's intrinsic skills and characteristics will also need to be taken into account. Finding the right balance here is hard, because if someone has skills which we think should result in them receiving less wealth then they are effectively forced to use those skills even if they would prefer not to.
One tool which I find helpful in thinking about these issues is the veil of ignorance:
The veil of ignorance and the original position are concepts introduced by John Harsanyi and later appropriated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g. slavery) based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him/her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions and resources in their society. As Rawls put it, "...no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like." The idea then, is to render moot those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.
For example, in the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of the worst-off members.
There are many criticisms of their thought experiment, but I think it can be useful as a way of stripping the status quo out of the question of what inequalities we are comfortable living with and which we really see as important.
My personal view is that while starting line equality (i.e., making sure people are as even as possible at the outset) is limited, it is probably the best that we can do. Once people are out living their lives and making choices, I think it is important to respect those choices by allowing them to have consequences, but I also think that as a society we have an obligation to make sure that no one can fall too far on any axis, even if they means limiting the heights people can obtain as a way of making sure that no one falls too low. I'm interested to hear what types of inequalities people think we should fight and which we should accept.
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