Some Problems of Equality

Some Problems of Equality

A completely egalitarian society strikes me as so utopian as to be beyond policy-oriented discussion. If all incomes were equal, it is doubtful that the most unpleasant and taxing jobs would be filled, and if all power were equalized, it is doubtful that any decisions could be made and any public activities could proceed. Moreover, such a society would need to be heavily regimented to prevent new inequalities from arising, and it would have to be static, straining toward a totally egalitarian end-state above all else. The major defect of complete equality is the defect of all single-value conceptions: if equality is the all-encompassing goal, then all other goals, regardless of their desirability or necessity, become lower in priority, and no society can function by pursuing one goal above all others. Some of the critics of equality have made this point, hoping thereby to end any discussion of equality, but complete equality is a spurious issue. The real issue, at least from the point of view of pragmatic social policy, is more equality, that is, how much present levels of inequality of income and power should be reduced. Putting it this way does not detract from the importance of equality as a goal, but it makes it possible to ask how much equality is feasible, and at what costs for the achievement of other goals. What degree of income equality is compatible with the division of labor, with filling unpleasant jobs, and with economic efficiency generally? What degree of political equality can be achieved in a large heterogeneous society that must inevitably be run by bureaucracies, and by political leaders who must represent—and thus in some ways be more unequal than—the citizens in whose names they act?

These are fundamental questions for egalitarian thought, and I can answer them only in very general terms. No person should have less income than is necessary to pay for the minimal goods and services considered essential for the American standard of living—for the standard package, as Lee Rainwater puts it—or than is necessary for him or her to be a fully participating member of American society. No one has yet computed the size of this minimum, although a long series of Gallup polls asking respondents how much they need to get along in their present community have shown that this minimum is about 70 percent of the median income, except that the poor, whose wants are more modest, have generally said they could get by with an income equivalent to 60 percent of that median. Consequently, more equality means, at least for me, that no person should have an income of less than 60 to 70 percent of the society’s median, however income is defined; or rather, of the median income for a particular position in the life-cycle, and in the case of families, of the median income by family size.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels