The good inequality

My working theory is that virtually no one wants equality as such. They want inequality, but the good kind, the justified kind. Hence it is plausible that someone could rail against the power of the 1% and yet still get snippy: “They want $15 an hour for flipping burgers?!”

The good inequality now would be based on getting a college education, but whether you received that education and the degree of quality would be based solely on your merits and efforts rather than your wealthy parents. Hence the focus in mainstream education reporting on making sure that Harvard’s student body is representative. Never mind that Harvard commands such vastly superior resources in a world where adjunct professors have to buy their own chalk.

It’s weird the directions that meritocracy starts taking you, though. Have you ever noticed how many firm believers in meritocracy seem to assume that taking race into account automatically cuts against a merit-based approached? How the people displaced by the “affirmative action” candidate are always qualified white men? It’s not surprising if we realize that racism was once considered the good kind of inequality. The racial hierarchy — scientifically established, mind you! — was a reflection of inherent merit. After all, how could whites be so much more powerful if they weren’t somehow better on the ontological level?

Those for whom the race-based meritocracy was too crass leaned on the superiority of cultural institutions. Westerners had developed a better culture, more open to innovation, less beholden to sclerotic traditions, more rewarding of good hard work. Never mind that the average peasant from any part of the world worked unimaginably harder than an enlightened colonial administrator could ever claim to. Never mind that every culture by its very nature is continually changing and thus innovating, that every tradition is an ongoing dialogue with the past and not some kind of robotic carrying out of obscure ancient instructions. And of course, one should ignore the fact that Islamic institutions had always been more supportive of commerce and social mobility, highlighting the dumb luck of the West in stumbling upon new technological approaches first.

The same strategies are repeated today when we learn that the black community’s culture is defective, insufficiently supportive of monogamy, sobriety, and responsibility. It’s not that they’re racially inferior, of course, it just so happens that one racially defined group has developed systematically better institutions than another racially defined group, which justifies the differential treatment of the two groups… And so we’re back to classic racism in all but name.

More enlightened approaches to the good kind of inequality recognize that every race has its “talented tenth” — and seeks to harvest that 10% to serve the dominant power structure. This seeming equality of opportunity, by depriving subaltern communities of their most talented potential leaders, reinforces the subordination of the whole even as it allows greater room to maneuver for selected individual members. One might think here of the juxtaposition of a black president and the callous murder of blacks by the police.

Even in the best kind of inequality, someone’s life chances have to be thwarted. Someone’s single life on earth, the only shot they get, has to be squandered. People demonize equality as totalitarian uniformity — but true equality would be the equality of a livable life for everyone. That would look different for different people, and I think it’s fair to say that such a life might contain its share of tedium and toil (rendered more bearable by its being shared and unstigmatized). It’s hard to predict in advance how to achieve this in all cases, but it seems to me that seeking the good, justified form of inequality is always going to lead us back to racism — hence it’s worth the effort of trying to figure out the elusive “what it would look like.”

7 Responses to “The good inequality”

  1. johnkutensky Says:

    You’d be surprised. I had a fellow student (in Texas) rail against the GINI coefficient for having full equality as the ideal. It sounded “socialist” to her, “and we’re capitalist in America,” so she didn’t see anything ideal about equality.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why would I be surprised by something that supports my first paragraph completely?

  3. Victor Onrust (@VictorOnrust) Says:

    If I understand you, inequality in itself is “bad”. Because in effect every inequality will be interpreted as having to live a “unlivable life”. The definition of what is livable and what not will always tend to the highest standard. “My friends all drive Porches, I must make amends”. This leads to the idea that persons in wheelchairs should have access anywhere on the costs of the community.

    The only thing that would really help is acknowledging inequalities as a fact of life and try to put some limits to it.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In a beautiful symmetry, your comment seems to repeat what I’m basically trying to say in the final paragraph.

  5. protoplasm Says:

    As Malcolm has it, full communism is the obvious solution.

    But it does seem to me rather easy to articulate, even in a childish and back-of-the-envelope manner, a regime that simultaneously avoids the ridiculous fears of egalitarianism (“Harrison Bergeron!” they scream, having not actually read Vonnegut’s satire?) and captures whatever might thought to be virtuous about (some kinds of) merit.

    Something like equality at the foundational levels of, say, Maslow’s hierarchy: everyone’s needs of physiology, safety, and belonging (political and economic) are met before inequalities at the higher levels are allowed to flourish. Or—making it looser still—instead of equality, something like a “floor of inequality”: no one gets more than enough food or clothing, more than one house, more than one car, etc. until everyone has the necessary quantity. (The productive capacity of humanity revealed by industrial capitalism shows these conditions to be easily met. We can handily feed, clothe, and house every human on earth with much more left over.)

    Left over are the aforementioned higher levels of the hierarchy: love, esteem, self-actualization, and, I guess, transcendence. Some will be funnier than others, some better painters, some more persuasive writers, some more beautiful. Those born e.g. without depression will always have an easier time than those born with it. (Assuming of course we can’t cure or prevent it.) No one will stop anyone from becoming their bowling league’s best bowler; no one will force others to read and praise the poetry they despise. Yay, all the inequalities you could want!

    Obviously the problem isn’t that the best system hasn’t been thought of. But it’s baffling that something like what’s been described, or the first and simplest solution of full communism, isn’t even massively attractive at the level of ideal. Though that’s not really baffling either, when we know where ideals come from. Angel of history, fuck this earth, first against the wall, etc.


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