Notes for October 10

Main points

We talked about the facts about the growth in inequality in the US and their possible ethical implications.

Ethical implications

One thing to take from Krueger’s article is that what Rawls called “chain connection” holds to a lesser degree than it used to. “Chain connection” means that the living standards of every class in society go up (or down) together. That is why Rawls wasn’t terribly concerned about the possibility of sacrificing gains to the better off in order to maximize the worst off class: he thought that the gains for one class would go along with gains for the others.

On the other hand, as Ian wisely noted, one of Krueger’s points is that the society as a whole is worse off than it would be if income were distributed more equally. If so, Rawls’s idea about chain connection may well be true: almost every class in society would be better off with less inequality. (Leaving out the very top, presumably.)

I also have some vague-ish warnings about equal opportunity. Equal opportunity means you have an equal chance at getting a nice position in society. It doesn’t mean your chances are good. If people in the bottom half of the distribution had to choose between broadly shared improvements to their well-being or more opportunities to move to a higher class that only some of them could actually take advantage of, it isn’t obvious to me that they would choose the latter.

Of course, equal opportunity usually goes along with broad improvements to everyone’s living standards. I’m just saying that you have to be careful.

If you’re interested in my song and dance about Rawls on equal opportunity, see “why not natural aristocracy?” on this page.

Historical injustice

We mused about how Nozick would handle historical injustice. His principle of rectification calls for some response, but it isn’t clear what it would be. I said that it’s possible that the productivity gains from the various incidents of injustice are large enough that everyone who might have a claim has already gotten as much in compensation than they could claim in a court-like setting (if there were such a thing). I don’t have the foggiest idea if that is true, mind you, but it’s at least a possibility to consider. Bear in mind that there is no way of actually reversing the historic injustices: the immediate victims and perpetrators are long dead and the things that were taken can no longer be restored. So if there is any rectification, it would have to be something like a cash equivalent. And that may already be in hand, depending on how you count these things.

Having typed that, I can’t help think that there is something inadequate about monetary compensation for the injustices we’re implicitly talking about. That’s yet another difficulty when it comes to this question.

Anyway, I said I could recommend two pretty good sources on this. Here they are.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted October 10, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being