What’s wrong with inequality? By Duncan Ivison June 15, 2015 What does

What’s wrong with inequality?

By Duncan Ivison

June 15, 2015

What does Lady Justice stand for? Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

One of the great issues of our day is inequality. Whether it is the Greek debt crisis, anxieties about Sydney real estate prices, the continuing resonance of “Occupy” and cries about the “1%”, or the publishing phenomenon of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” – a concern about inequality has worked its way into mainstream political debate. Even Hilary Clinton is putting it at the heart of her presidential campaign.

This focus on inequality (and thus equality) is welcome. It’s a big issue and one that requires big ideas to address it. It will be a challenge for our political culture – prone as it is to easy point scoring and suffused in a clickbait mediasphere – to do it justice. But it also allows us to connect these emergent public concerns with the kinds of things many political philosophers have been arguing about over the past few years.

Equality and its discontents

The obvious question is: What is actually wrong with inequality?

It might seem obvious, but when you pause to really pose the question, it quickly becomes clear the answer isn’t so straightforward. First of all, if you are opposed to inequality, then it follows that you think everyone should be equal. But equal in relation to what? And equality of what?

If you are committed to equality, does it follow you think everyone should be equal in relation to everything? That would be absurd. Some of us are tall, some short. Some of us are ordinary looking, others beautiful. No one is talking about equality in relation to our height or our looks (although…maybe we should be).

Where it gets tricky is in relation to what we call equality of resources – that is, the opportunities, income and wealth that people have. Is any differentiation in income and wealth between persons justified? And if it is, then on what grounds? Shouldn’t brain surgeons earn more than philosophers? Doesn’t Bill Gates deserve the billions he has if he’s taken the risk to invest what he started with?

Many people reach for a familiar idea at this point. Maybe if everyone starts off with roughly similar amounts of wealth, and everyone has genuine equality of opportunity, any subsequent differences are ok. Political philosophers have devised a whole range of arguments and thought experiments to test how far we are willing to go on this one.

Liberty and equality

One initial challenge is the relation between liberty and equality. For example, if people are free to pursue whatever career they want, then if someone is able to earn a much greater income or accumulate much greater wealth than others because of their special talents, hard work and ingenuity, then what’s wrong with that?

The American philosopher Robert Nozick developed his famous “Wilt Chamberlain” argument to test this thought. Chamberlain was a hugely talented NBA basketball star in the 1960s and 70s – the LeBron James of his day. Nozick argued that if, for example, 1 million fans were willing to pay an additional 25 cents to see Wilt play, then he can earn $250,000 more than anyone else.

On what grounds is the state justified in taking a proportion of this additional income to redistribute to others, who have less? If Wilt or Lebron is the reason fans come to the game, and they willingly pay their hard earned cash to see him play, how can it be justified to take any of that income away on the basis of some principle of equality or distributive justice?

Le Bron James is clearly gifted, but is it fair that he reap the benefits of its gifts?

Nozick’s argument was developed, in part, in response to his Harvard colleague John Rawls’s hugely influential A Theory of Justice – probably the most important statement of liberal principles of social justice in the modern era. Rawls had developed his own thought experiment to test what kind of principles we would agree to if we genuinely wanted to treat each other as “free and equal”. His famous example involved each of us starting from what he called the “original position” – a kind of cone of ignorance. Assume that you didn’t know if you were rich or poor, smart or stupid, hard working or lazy, Catholic or atheist: What kind of principles should govern the “basic structure” of society?

Rawls argued that first, we would choose a principle that protected our basic liberties. And second, that we would choose a principle that maximised the situation of the worst off, just in case we found ourselves in that group. In other words, we would choose principles that ensured that if there were inequalities, they existed only to make the situation of the worst off as best as they could be. So it’s not that a brain surgeon really deserves to earn more than a philosopher. But it’s better for all of us if incentives exist for people to want to become brain surgeons.

Thus even the most famous liberal social democrat of the 20th century thought there would still be inequalities in an ideally just society. But Rawls thought they would be ones we could live with.

Not all inequalities are alike

But this returns us to the core question with which we began: What is wrong with inequality? Almost no one defends pure egalitarianism. Instead, political philosophers have tried to identify which inequalities matter, and why.

No one denies that absolute poverty, for example, is a bad thing. Although there are intense debates about where, exactly, to draw the line in defining poverty, everyone agrees that poverty is a bad. But after a certain point, usually above where it is assumed that people have enough resources to lead a “decent” life, why care about the levels of inequality between, say, a banker and a nurse?

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the short answer is that persistent and rising levels of inequality makes the worst off in our society even more worse off overall. And that is unfair. We know the inequality is closely related to a host of outcomes with regard to health, crime, education and employment. None of this would matter as much if there were a lot of mobility between the different income levels – if knowing the position of your parents, for example, didn’t tell us much about where you eventually ended up in the distribution of social goods.

But alas, this isn’t the case. To allow for vastly different starting points in relation to people’s ability to make the most of their opportunities -– to get a decent education, a well-paying job, to enjoy good health – is unjust.

The politics of inequality

This logic applies to the political community too, as those on the highest incomes and with the greatest amount of wealth are usually better able to exercise their ability to influence political parties with regard to their interests. Segments of the community then become more disconnected from each other, as wealth enables people to literally buy themselves out of public institutions – whether it be public transport, education, healthcare or indeed housing. It is very difficult to feel solidarity with people with whom you never interact or even see – except, perhaps, on sensationalist TV programs

Of course, one response to this kind of concern is to say that inequality is required to provide incentives for the talented and hard working to create the economic growth that we all benefit from. In other words, that we need to grow the economic pie, and not simply come up with new ways to fine-slice it. We do indeed need economic growth, but not at any price, and not on any terms.

First of all, there is the need to balance growth against environmental capacity. If we exhaust our common planet, then we are all doomed. Second, we need to think about how the gains from economic reform can be more justly shared through the tax and transfer system. And it is here that we need to have an open debate about equality. And maybe – just this once – political philosophers can help.


Disclosure: Duncan Ivison receives funding from the Australian Research Council.



Arguments matter, even if they come down to “semantics”

Greg Restall

Michael Shand

Great Article, although the strawmen are kind of boring “f you are opposed to inequality, then it follows that you think everyone should be equal” – no one thinks this

Brad Farrant

In reply to Michael Shand

Agree Michael.

The key point of the article (and the wider debate) for me is this –

What is wrong with inequality? … the short answer is that persistent and rising levels of inequality makes the worst off in our society even more worse off overall. And that is unfair. We know the inequality is closely related to a host of [negative] outcomes with regard to health, crime, education and employment.

Same here, it seems so obvious and has been pointed out by various groups for decades, ignored by politicians for longer. It will be interesting to see how this is read by the more libertarian and neoliberal among us

Brad Farrant

In reply to Michael Shand

Yes it will be interesting to see the responses.

Samuel Paul Douglas

PhD researcher (Philosophy) at University of Newcastle

In reply to Michael Shand

“no one thinks this”Oh, but they do, at least for a little while – I met quite a few in my first couple of years at uni.

Anyway, I don’t think this was really intended as a straw man, rather it was a deliberate over-simplification – a shortcut to the core question.

David Aldred

In reply to Brad Farrant

But isn’t this just deferring the question?

Unless one has an answer to why inequality is a problem, the question of what is ‘fair’ is surely moot: if one doesn’t find inequality, why should one mind unfairness?

The answer to the question – What is wrong with inequality? – Is that inequality makes the worst off in our society even more worse off. Research has found that inequality is associated with a range of negative health, crime, education and employment outcomes.

Michael Shand

In reply to Samuel Paul Douglas

Thanks, I can only imagine it would be those that haven’t really thought it through before, I would hope.

I also recognise that maybe your right, it was an oversimplification – I personally found it un-needed and boring but maybe your right that it is needed to guide people to the core question

Michael Shand

In reply to David Aldred

Inequality leads to bad outcomes for society – it can result in pitch fork stuff if inequality grows to far. Desperate people will do desperate things, a mother will steal a loaf of bread to feed her baby – you want less criminals – reduce inquality

it is born out in the data, it is not a matter of opinion

Valerie Kay

In reply to Michael Shand

I do. I think it would be good if we all had roughly similar resources as well as equal rights.

Michael Shand

In reply to Valerie Kay

Ideally yes but not absolutely right – so if we were walking down the street and I picked up a 10cent piece, your not going to cry yourself to sleep that night due to the inequality

I think we all pretty much agree with you that things should be roughly equal

Arnd Liebenberg

exploring the possibilities of post-bourgeois society We do indeed need economic growth… Do we?

Define ‘economic growth’, with special regard to various ‘steady state’ economic outlooks. 800 words!

I am prepared to tolerate even fairly high levels of inequality as long as it does not go over the tipping point beyond which it fuels a self-referential feedback loop – the rich get richer just because they start from an advantage already. It is unfair, and it seems to imbue all sorts of social, commercial and political processes and interactions with a rather nasty, dog-eat-dog competitiveness, which reduces overall quality of life for everyone, and is systemically sustainable in the long run.Note that we are down a very long run already:


Btw, Nick Hanauer likes Capitalism. I don’t. But that’s yet another subject.

Andrew Brown

In reply to Arnd Liebenberg

the rich get richer just because they start from an advantage already

Some do. A lot don’t. There is a lot of intergenerational downward mobility among the rich. This is especially so even in the US. If you look at a list of America’s richest people, very few of them can trace that wealth back further than their parents, with the majority being self-made. There’s an old saying: ‘the first generation makes the money; the second generation consolidates it; the third generation loses it’. Or as the Dutch say, ‘clogs to clogs in three generations’.

Where the self-referential feedback loop is most pernicious is among the long-term welfare dependent.

Arnd Liebenberg

exploring the possibilities of post-bourgeois society

In reply to Andrew Brown

Point(s) taken! Thanks, Andrew. I’ll be more careful trotting out tired old memes in future.

Andrew Holliday

In reply to Andrew Brown

re ‘Some do. A lot don’t.’Picketty’s book disagrees with this assertion. His data (and the entire book is essentially a review of reams of data) suggests that the rich do indeed get richer because, for the majority, they start from a position of advantage already. This includes the US.

Andrew Brown

In reply to Andrew Holliday

I’ve got Picketty’s book. I skimmed it a few months ago. I did not get the impression he could justify his assertion. In particular, I don’t recall seeing any data that could refute my assertion. Of course he can’t. He would be pretty silly to argue that people born into rich families never experience downward mobility! Can you give me some page numbers to consult?

Samuel Paul Douglas

Great piece. It’s been many years since I read both Nozick and Rawls, but enjoyed them greatly. Both Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia are well worth a read.

While some people don’t accept this, Rawls’ idea regarding what inequality is justifiable does seem to address some of the questions regarding the environment.

Andrew Holliday

In reply to Samuel Paul Douglas

I had the same response Samuel. A great read, reminding me of both Rawls and Nozick’s arguments. My recollection was that in terms of the quality of his arguments Nozick’s book was full of holes and questionable assumptions (the example in this piece is a classic piece of ‘intuition pumping’; this usually being the starting point for considering a problem, rather than the end point Nozick uses it for), while Rawls had the better arguments, but was a far drier writer; Nozick was a lot more fun!

Garry Baker

Good article … straight forward logic. However it should have focused on “degrees” of inequality

Whether a 180 degree shift is fair enough, or as in the current social climate, somewhere near 359 degrees is an Ok thing.

Oddly enough, though, the man in the street is equipped with a reasonably good bean counter to tot up the difference … So what does the author think – acceptable degree of inequality wise

Russell Hamilton

This part is important for our concept of democracy: “those on the highest incomes and with the greatest amount of wealth are usually better able to exercise their ability to influence political parties with regard to their interests”

Also, great inequality tends to solidify into a class system, like the British aristocracy. It’s not difficult to understand that when people with comparatively little see people with palatial houses, superior educations, beautifully dressed etc. they see these wealthy people as ‘better’ than themselves – the forelock-tugging becomes internalised. If we want all people in the community to have dignity, we can’t allow great inequality.

Andrew Brown

In reply to Russell Hamilton

The British aristocracy did not emerge due to a concentration of great wealth. It was the other way round. Being made an aristocrat led to great wealth. The British aristocracy formed out of military heroes being rewarded by the monarch with a title, a landed estate, and usually cash. It was from this landed estate that the aristocracy accumulate wealth – from rent. But the British aristocracy is largely broke nowadays – shabby gentility.

Laurie McGinnes

High School Science Teacher

Inequality rises when the political system becomes corrupted by vested interests who lobby for subsidies and favourable treatment. This deflects wealth away from other sectors, particularly those working for wages. This is what is happening at an ever increasing rate in Australia. Unions have been emasculated so that low paid workers have no real bargaining power. Corporations have been deregulated maximising their capacity to exploit resources and labour. Employment conditions have been so thoroughly under mined that the next generation has been told never to expect anything more than temporary employment. The assumption that this is the inevitable consequence of technological change is only that, an unexamined assumption. We are currently governed by a pack of parasitic prats who demonstrate nothing so much as the kind of narcissism that only ever arises in those whose life experience has been so narrow and priveleged as to blind them completely to any understanding of the realities under which the over whelming majority live. They would be pitiable if they were less obnoxious.

Andrew Brown

the short answer is that persistent and rising levels of inequality makes the worst off in our society even more worse off overall.

I’m not sure what this “overall” is supposed to mean. Certainly over the past 25 years both the income and wealth of the lowest 20% of Australians has increased substantially; even in real terms. The fact that the top 20% have increased by even more might have increased inequality (but it hasn’t once transfers are included), the worst off in our society have most definitely not been made even more worse off.

And that is unfair. Which just begs the question…

Michael Shand

In reply to Andrew Brown

Large Inequality leads to pitch forks – simply speaking hence why we want small amount of inequality because pitch forks destabilise a society – thats bad

Andrew Brown

In reply to Michael Shand

Large inequality only leads to pitch-forks if those at the bottom have absolutely miserable standard of living. So long as we keep tending to the bottom, the rest can look after itself.

Michael Shand

In reply to Andrew Brown

Equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome

if we all have equal opportunity for shelter, food and employment – then we don’t really have inequality

it’s self refuting, when we talk of inequality – we don’t mean everyone has to be the same height, nor that everyone has to earn the same amount

the otherside to the coin is that – until we live in a utopia, we have only limited resources and your bigger slice of pie HAS to come at the expense of mine

Michael Shand

In reply to Andrew Brown

You may also want to read up on what Monkeys do when they sense inequality and then ask yourself if people like me are much different to monkeys .Capuchin monkeys seem to know what is wrong with inequality. Easily trained to do chores in return for food, they have been kept as home help by housebound quadriplegics. But one thing they will not abide is unfair pay. A capuchin might perform simple tasks for cucumber slices but if she sees a neighbour being rewarded with grapes for similar work, she will expect a raise”

Andrew Brown

In reply to Michael Shand

No, it doesn’t if the pie keeps growing.

Andrew Brown

In reply to Michael Shand

As Capuchin monkeys produce no surplus, have no wealth, or income, the comparison is irrelevant.

Michael Shand

In reply to Andrew Brown

the otherside to the coin is that – until we live in a UTOPIA, we have only limited resources and your bigger slice of pie HAS to come at the expense of mine

Michael Shand

In reply to Andrew Brown

The comparison is between ME and those Monkeys and how both of these animals react to perceived unfairness/inequity

Seeing as the monkey reacts badly – what are the chances I’m a react badly?

Barry Goldman

Of course there must be inequality. First you start with the building blocks – which are different in every living (and non-living) thing. Then you add evolution, then this is tempered with ethics or morality (when it can be afforded – which should be the case in today’s modern and enlightened society).

Michael Shand

In reply to Barry Goldman

No one is argueing for perfect equality in all things – that is a silly idea

perhaps reread the article

Thomas Kern

Great, thought-provoking article, thanks, Duncan! However, to solve the most pressing issue of humankind which you are rightly referring to, ie what you call slightly trivializingly, if I may say so, the limits of our ‘environmental capacity’ we need to ask the questions you ask on a global scale. Please prove me wrong, however, the thinking in your article appears to end at the national borders.

On a global scale, there is no room for economic growth anymore. We are currently consuming 1.5 planets. Since we are living in a so-called developed country, we need to de-grow if you would like to see your philosophy applied to all human beings. I am sure you did not mean to exclude parts of our species, did you?

Ric Phillips

Interesting article. One comes to different positions on inequality depending on whether one frames prosperity as the outcome of individual or group agency. Wherein lies the genius of Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”thought experiment, which resolves the apparent dichotomy.

There is no sound argument against inequality from the perspective of the Randian neoliberal fantasy of the individual who “owes nothing” to society.

We only prosper in a system. So for prosperity to be fair, the system itself must be fair. Equality, as a value, is not the desire the uniformity of individuals but the desire for a fair system.

I agree wholeheartedly with the line in the article that says “To allow for vastly different starting points in relation to people’s ability to make the most of their opportunities -– to get a decent education, a well-paying job, to enjoy good health – is unjust.”

This is a challenge where the solution is glaringly obvious and easy to state. Remove all access to health, justice, and education from the “market”. Institute an unconditional minimum income scheme of the kind Switzerland is considering. It is a solution that is hugely complicated to implement. Still I think we could. Not however while it is unthinkable to any significant majority of the society that attempted it.

Andrew Brown

In reply to Ric Phillips

To allow for vastly different starting points in relation to people’s ability to make the most of their opportunities -– to get a decent education, a well-paying job, to enjoy good health – is unjust.

How so? And what about if we allow for just ‘different starting points’, not vastly different? And have you considered how you reorganize society so that we are all in the original position behind the veil of ignorance?

Chris Saunders

Equality means equal rights before the law, and access to the law. “What is actually wrong with inequality?” It leads to despotism.

Claudio Dionigi

Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument can be challenged without John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’. If people pay to see him ‘play’, it is not enough for him to play alone, or just show us his skills. He can only play basketball in a team, against other players. On his own, his skills are meaningless. Each person on a team or the opposing team contributes to the contest.

This argument has been used to justify inequality because the same argument ignores the reality of society. No one in a society is anything without it. Also, special skills, like basketball ability, musicianship, surgical skill etc., are themselves developed and learned through our collective evolution. ‘No human is an island’ and if they were, they wouldn’t be what we call a human. This is the basic fallacy at the heart of individualism and libertarianism.

Individualistic philosophies ignore any notion of a ‘common good’, from which all other ‘goods’, such as individual pursuits arise. Inequality is problematic not just because it makes the worst off even worse off, it is problematic because it destroys the ‘common good’ and creates a false opposition between atomised individuals who are defined as winners and losers.

Laurie McGinness

Consider the inequity of current wages. My wife works in aged care. She is responsible for managing the immediate needs of 17 elderly people which can include showering, toileting and dressing them. She is also responsible for administering their medications which are numerous. She also has to provide for their emotional and psychological needs. She needs to be ready to administer first aid and to cope with the regular deaths that occur and the response of other residents to those deaths. Her job is physically, intellectually and emotionally demanding. What does she get paid? About half what I do. You might also then consider the considerable on going discrimination in job opportunity on the basis of gender, age, appearance and race. It may be technically illegal but it is still there to observe anywhere you look.

Col Campey

” We know the inequality is closely related to a host of outcomes with regard to health, crime, education and employment”I don’t know this!Maybe we should substitute “poverty” for “inequality”

Michael Shand

In reply to Col Campey

Are you familiar with hyper inflation as what happened in Zimbabwe?

Joanne Bills

A great thought-provoking article thank you Duncan, the sort of thing that makes The Conversation so valuable. In an if not perfect, then slightly more perfect world you would hope the government’s role is redistributing wealth so that there is a socially acceptable access for all to education, health and housing, and as a society we would recognise the benefits to all of us, no matter how wealthy of having every person “living with dignity and opportunity”. Where the idealism and discourse falls down is the idea of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor – whose laziness, substance abuse etc – or even the fact that they are escaping a much poorer country means they deserve the little they have got.