In his post “Who owns the world?“, Doug Muder looks at the ‘justice’ in social justice, and argues that economic justice – or fairness – requires recognition of one’s debt to the commons. He explains that private ownership of natural resources (starting with fertile land) was essentially a human invention, and that this monopolisation of the means of wealth production was unfair. A parallel pattern now exists in people developing commercial products using pre-existing knowledge and technologies that are, or should be, part of a common legacy. Because of this, a mechanism is needed to continually re-level the playing field, to keep correcting for the inherent unfairness in people being allowed to make money from things that were not wholly theirs by rights.
That’s a pretty radical understanding of the rationale for progressive taxation. But there is a further problem with the concept of fairness, which is explored in an interesting article by Dylan Matthews, “The case against equality of opportunity“.
Equal opportunities would be impossible in practice, but even if we could all somehow have the exact same start in life, each person’s ‘opportunity’ to create a decent life for themselves would still depend on their innate talents and weaknesses and their ability to work hard. When people say there should be equality of opportunity, what they mean is that success should depend on talent and hard work alone – which might be perfectly reasonable, but when material well-being depends on achieving success (at something), it has this dark, unspoken corollary that those who are not so talented or cannot work hard are less deserving of a decent living standard. I think when you take into account the genetic and environmental lottery we all play, there is no real way to define the concept of “deserving”, and it seems inhumane that some people should just fall through the cracks.
Doug Muder touches on this problem towards the end of his post, but his answer seems to be that charity is still needed even in a world with equal opportunities. Which doesn’t really address the issue around “deserving”, because it puts people who can’t work at the mercy of the generosity of those who can. I don’t really think that is a whole lot more humane, or fair: a society in which wealth is stratified by intelligence and hard work is arguably not much better than one stratified by persistent accumulation of wealth and privilege, since intelligence and an ability to work hard are privileges in a way also.
I think most countries in the ‘developed’ world do provide a basic standard of living for those who can’t earn it for themselves (although we probably can’t take even that for granted; as I write, our government is busy cutting chunks out of disabled benefits, potentially to reduce middle-class tax bills…). And more wealth is not necessarily better for well-being, past a certain point. Dylan Matthews seems to suggest that we should ensure that everyone is at least OK and then not worry too much about the inequality above that, and I can see the point there.
But inequality does have real effects on the overall well-being of a society. It’s clear that we do tend to view our relative material position as a value judgement from society, and not as merely an indifferent consequence of impersonal labour market forces. Besides, money is power – people with wealth can influence and shape society in ways that others cannot (through the media, through political lobbying, and so on).
I read somewhere a while ago that ableism is the basis of all oppression. I have been mulling that statement over ever since. It’s true that every type of oppression, every instance of one group having power over another, is a result of the opportunistic grabbing of that power – they could, so they did. (Gender inequity, for example, perhaps originates in the difference in physical strength and the unequal division of reproductive “work” between male and female bodies.) Sometimes it’s just down to who got there first – as in those who got the first title deeds to productive land.
In an age where Darwinian natural selection and “survival of the fittest” is widely understood, and the Protestant work ethic deeply embedded in our culture, it’s difficult for our sociological imaginations to see structural ableism as something that can be questioned, and to conceive of another way. What would it be like if we didn’t have to work for a living? Many people are discussing this since technological advances may sooner or later render most people redundant. Would we find a way, as a society, to come to some agreement that we all have a share in the wealth produced by that technology? Probably we would have to for practical reasons, but would that in turn change how we thought about fairness?