What, If Anything, Can Justify Inequality?

By now, most people concerned with social justice have memorized their go-to statistic that captures the degree of economic inequality in the United States. Currently, my mind is fixed on the discovery by researchers Piketty and Saez that three-quarters of income growth between 2002 and 2006 was pocketed by the top 1%, a figure that reveals the “irrational exuberance” that precipitated the Great Recession. Remarkably, during the so-called “recovery,” this division has widened and accelerated: between 2009 and 2011, the top 1% earned 95 cents of every new income dollar.  OK, so that makes two statistics.

Since the housing bust, the financial implosion, and this evidently pro-rich recovery, there has been a steady stream of commentary addressing the causes and consequences of inequality: Inequality is a topic that either implicitly or explicitly informs our discourse about the economy and public policy, and thus it naturally shapes the behaviors of voters, politicians, policymakers, investors, and businesspeople. And while one is unlikely to come across a person who champions the growing chasm between the rich and the poor and the slow evaporation of the middle class, inequality is treated as a fact of life, along with Benjamin Franklin’s “death and taxes.”

GA Cohen

Late Canadian political philosopher G.A. Cohen

The reluctant defense of economic inequality generally comes in two flavors. First, one encounters the argument that it is the promise of greater material reward – and the fear of destitution – that inspires a worker to outproduce and outperform his neighbor. This argument is summed up in the expression: “a rising tide lifts all boats:” inequality is permissible, since there is more overall wealth and since no one is worse off than she was before. In economic circles, this is called a Pareto improvement. The second defense of inequality takes a different tone. Inequality occurs because, through a combination of luck, skill, and effort, some people will be better off than others, and those who earn less deserve their poorer condition, through the inverse combination of misfortune, ineptitude, or laziness. And this resultant inequality persists because those who are worse off have no legitimate claim to the rightfully earned bread of another person. 

The two positions expressed above exemplify, in crude form, perhaps the two most famous justifications of inequality in the twentieth century. The first represents, mutatis mutandis, the essence of John Rawls’s justification of economic disparity, which he first laid out in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, and again in subsequent works, such as Political Liberalism (1985) and Justice as Fairness (2001). The second argument sums up the view of Robert Nozick, whose 1974 Anarchy, State, and Utopia was not only a response to Rawls (whom he felt permitted too much cramping of individualism) but was also a manifesto for right-libertarianism. In a sense, these works became foundational texts that cemented the philosophies of the left-right divide in American politics. Bill Clinton, a not so closeted neoliberal himself, heaped praise upon Rawls’s work, which supplied the ethical basis for many of his economic policies. Nozick, whose ideas dovetail with those of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, is far more suspicious of the state than Rawls, and is therefore an intellectual precursor – if not a co-founder – of modern conservatism.

While it is certainly common to hear inequality described as a form of injustice, oddly enough there has not been a thorough explanation as to exactly why inequality is unjust. Perhaps the most articulate and robust criticism of both defenses of inequality came from – in my opinion, our generation’s most underrated political philosopher – Gerald Allan (G.A.) Cohen. In 1995 he published Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, which contained a rebuttal to Nozick’s treatise, and in 2008 he published Rescuing Justice and Equality in response to Rawls’s political ideas, especially his defense of inequality on Pareto grounds. Below I’ll rehearse Cohen’s major ideas from these and other works.

John Rawls’s ingenious socio-political approach begins with a clever Gedankenexperiment. Imagine, he says, that you are about to enter the world without any idea regarding your place in society, from your skills and intelligence to your wealth to your social class. Rawls calls this blindness to your future station the “veil of ignorance.” From your original position, prior to social integration, you are likely to want to establish some prior ground rules that will protect you from inheriting some unjust position (ex: a slave). Rawls anticipates that there would be several foundational principles that prospective citizens would agree to. Foremost is the principle of liberty: individuals should have no right to cause harm to another person. Secondly, people will agree that each member will have an equal opportunity to occupy important political and social posts. Thirdly, he says, comes the difference principle: any redistribution of goods and wealth must not come at the expense of the least well off in society. For instance, a redistribution of 5-5-5 to 4-5-10 would be impermissible, since one person’s wealth increases at the expense of another’s. However, a distribution to 7-10-10 would be permissible (for instance, if two members share some bananas they found while hoarding the rest). Obviously, since the difference principle protects members of society from exploitation, everyone agrees to it. In his writings, Rawls combines the latter two principles, uniting them under the title of the “second principle of justice,” while the liberty principle remains wholly distinct and lexically prior to (i.e. it trumps) the other two stipulations.

Cohen’s critique of Rawls’s permission of inequality unfolds progressively. He engages in an almost Talmudic reading of Rawls’s texts, splitting hairs and parsing terminology in order to exhume ambiguities and contradictions, under which weight Rawls’s entire philosophical project collapses.

Once the veil of ignorance is lifted, the members enter society. Rawls imagines that there is a government in this new society to ensure that the principles of justice are respected, which he calls the “basic structure.” Here is one formulation of how the citizens relate to this basic structure:

“For us the primary object of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation. By major institutions I understand the political constitution and the principal economic and social arrangements….[The two principles of justice] may not work for the rules and practices of private associations or for those of less comprehensive social groups. They may be irrelevant for the various informal conventions and customs of everyday life [emphasis added].” (Rawls qtd. in RJE 133)

On this reading, there is a kind of indifference vis-a-vis a denizen and his neighbors. Because their daily actions are not motivated by a strict adherence to the principles of justice, the major institutions in society intervene to confer and distribute rights and duties, as well as to redistribute the wealth (“determine the division of advantages from social cooperation”).

Liberal political philosopher John Rawls  (1921-2002)

Liberal political philosopher John Rawls

On other occasions, Rawls provides a different view regarding how people interrelate. He states that everyone acts on these principles “in the course of their daily lives.” For instance, people work hard to produce goods for the public in the same way that “members of a family commonly do not wish to gain unless they can do so in ways that further the interests of the rest.” In other words, Rawls’s denizens are directly motivated by the established principles of justice. They act in a fraternal spirit rather than depend on the state to correct unjust differences.

As mentioned before, Cohen does not point out Rawls’s inconsistencies in order to shame him. Instead, he gradually reveals that, regardless of which logical fork one takes, either one results in an intellectual cul-de-sac.

Under the first reading of the basic structure, Rawls supposes that people need not show their commitment to the principles that they agreed upon in their daily lives, since the state has that responsibility. He writes in A Theory of Justice that “since parties are assumed not to take an interest in one another’s interests, their acceptance of those inequalities is only the acceptance of the relations in which men stand in the circumstances of justice.” He further states that inequalities incentivize the talented to become profit-maximizers to do well so that they can produce more goods in a way that satisfies the difference principle. In other words, the talented become more industrious in order to enhance their own wealth, and the fact that the least well off also benefit is some kind of incidental ‘positive externality.’ Cohen calls this version of the difference principle the lax interpretation.

On the other reading of the basic structure, everyone acts on the “highest-order desire, their sense of justice, to act from the principles of justice.” Thus, the talented work harder not for their own self-enrichment, but in order to deliberately lift the position of the worst off. Rawls writes that the talented refuse “to gain unless they can do so in a ways that further the interests of the rest.” In this light, the improvement in the station of others is not some afterthought or coincidence, but central to the motivation of the most talented. Cohen refers to this manifestation of the difference principle as the strict interpretation.

Cohen brilliantly indicates that inequality allowed under the strict interpretation fails, because, if the more capable members of society were truly moved by a fraternal spirit, then they would share the fruits of their extra labor, as it is wrong to withhold gains from those whose deficiencies are no fault of their own.

Rawls states in Political Liberalism that the obvious starting point for his society is one in which “all social primary goods, including income and wealth, should be equal: everyone should have an equal share.” This initial equality obtains because Rawls feels that the “natural distribution of abilities” is arbitrary from a moral point of view. In A Theory of Justice Rawls also expresses dissatisfaction with the realization that “influence of social contingencies still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of talents and abilities.” These quotes reveal that Rawls thinks it is unfair that the initial distribution of goods should be unequal, since this inequality would arise out of different skill sets, which are beyond one’s control.

Cohen lays out a hypothetical situation that complies with Rawls’s proto-egalitarian sentiments: initially, all members of society have an equal amount of wealth – a position he calls D1 (ex: 5-5-5). Then he imagines that the talented use their morally arbitrary advantage to outproduce or out-accumulate the less talented and create inequality that nonetheless improves the condition of all. (For example, two skilled climbers pluck bananas, toss a couple to a paraplegic, and save the rest for themselves.) This state of Pareto improvement he refers to as D2 (ex: 7-10-10). Then Cohen asks: Is this move to D2 just? His answer is no.

Why? He claims that one can imagine a new distribution, D3 (ex: 9-9-9), which involves an equal distribution of wealth with the same number of goods as in D2; D3 is a Pareto improvement over D1 and Pareto incomparable with D2. Cohen admits that while the move from D1 to D2 is good policy, it is not just, because it violates the conditions established at D1, in which equality was mandated in order to negate morally arbitrary (dis)advantages. If equality is fair for this reason at the beginning, then why, Cohen asks, should inequality prevail at a later stage just because there are more goods than before? In other words, the move from D1 to D2 is unjust, because it is unfair (as Rawls declared) for random abilities to produce an unequal distribution of goods.

Cohen foresees one objection to this preference for D3 over D2. The tree-climbers might refuse to cooperate and question why they should equally share the bananas (with the paraplegic, for example) that they picked. Cohen has a wise rebuttal to this. In a society governed by the strict interpretation of the difference principle, the talented work harder not for their own personal gain, but out of fraternity. If the climbers are true to the difference principle in their day-to-day lives (which they are in the strict interpretation), the more talented citizens who are committed to it will prefer D3 to D2 because the worse off sees a higher net gain (9 rather than just 7 or 5 bananas). If the talented refuse to make the move to D3, Cohen notes that they are essentially telling the worse off “I won’t work as hard if I don’t get more than you” (RJE 27).

The argument of the talented in this case is in no way different from the 1% in American society telling the poor that if the tax rate is raised from 35% to 40%, then they will work less hard or invest less. This, Cohen says, is a bluff, since there is no reason for the talented to make this threat. The talented would hurt themselves if they did work less at 40% compared to at 35%, since they would earn more if they worked just as hard as they did under 40%. Cohen reveals that while it sounds rational at first for the talented to refuse to move from D2 to D3, when placed in personal terms in front of the “justificatory community” (the worst off), then their refusal is hardly in accord with the strict interpretation of the difference principle. This interpretation states that the talented should improve the lot of the better off when they can do so because they relate to the rest of society as they relate to their family – such that they gain only when the worst off gain. They are motivated by an ethical, kinship-style ethos.

In short, inequality need not arise under the strict interpretation of the difference principle, as any gains would gladly be shared with those with random disadvantages.

Under the lax interpretation, remember, the government is called upon to intervene to correct any unjust allocation of goods. The government has this coercive role because the citizens do not produce more out of fraternity, but rather out of the desire to accumulate more for themselves. In this instance, one might imagine the paraplegic asking the tree climbers to grab a dozen bananas so that they can share. One of the climbers might reply, “Sure, we’ll get the bananas. We’ll give you two, and he and I will split the remaining 10. We’re the ones climbing the tree, after all, so we deserve more for our labor.” Again, the climbers are in a sense bluffing, but that is not what concerns Cohen here. Instead, he claims, the climbers’ rationale is flawed, because they are smuggling in a metric that is not allowed under Rawls’s scheme: hardship, or effort. As Cohen points out, “the official metric of the argument is that of primary goods;” changes in relative socioeconomic standing can only be measured according to tangible social primary goods (i.e. income and wealth), not labor exerted.

Moreover, the introduction of a metric of effort (were it granted) would actually negate the possibility of inequality arising whatsoever. How is this so? Let’s imagine the tree climbers agree to hand over two bananas from the dozen once they secure them. In this case, the reward, the compensation, for their effort in finding and picking the bananas is the bananas themselves. When one factors in the illfare (effort) and the the welfare (the reward), the result is a wash. Or, imagine you and a friend are both broke (no wealth) and you both have the option of working on a Saturday; you decide to go, while your friend stays at home. From a strictly materialist view, there is now, ceteris paribus, an inequality in the distribution of wealth. However, once you factor effort into the equation, you and your friend are equal: she received nothing because she did nothing, while you received compensation for your labor (etymology is helpful here: “compensation” comes from the Latin compensare meaning to ‘weigh one thing against another’ and describes the act of neutralizing or making up for a loss).

In short, the proper application of both versions of the difference principle precludes the possibility of inequality. Under the strict interpretation, any gains would be shared with the least well off, least able, in a spirit of fraternity. Under the lax interpretation, those who are most capable of boosting the social product cannot demand a greater share of the net growth in wealth, because to do so would be to include a metric (effort) that Rawls does not recognize in the original position.

The astute observer might by now have drawn a logical conclusion from Cohen’s arguments. In a way, the talented become slaves to the worst off, as they become obligated to work tirelessly in order to maximize the number of goods that can be enjoyed by all. Cohen recognizes that this mandate poses a threat to a maxim higher than the difference principle – the liberty principle. However, Cohen points out that no where in the liberty principle does Rawls say that people have the freedom to choose their occupation or how many hours they work.

Nevertheless, it would be a serious demand to make of the talented that they take up a strenuous job that they do not prefer. Cohen supposes that a talented person may wish to become a gardner first and a doctor second. While Cohen does not believe that the liberty principle guarantees this person to the job she desires, he believes there is a way out of the alleged trilemma which alleges that one cannot satisfy, at the same time, freedom of occupation, Pareto, and equality. The way to resolve this ‘impossible trinity’ is foreshadowed by the Titmuss trilemma. In post-war Britain, Richard Titmuss wanted to run a blood donation center that met three criteria: (1) no payment for blood supply, (2) an adequate supply of blood, and (3) freedom to donate. He feared that, without a monetary incentive to donate, or a mandate to do so, there would be a tragic shortage of blood. However, there was an adequate supply, which proves there is a solution to di- and trilemmas which set up a false opposition between liberty and equality. Titmuss found that donors regularly gave blood because they were motivated by an egalitarian ethos, a desire to help their fellow Britons in need.

Cohen advocates an ethical-political philosophy based on these communitarian grounds. In his particular species of egalitarianism, luck egalitarianism, any inequality that arises from involuntary disadvantages is considered unjust. For instance, the paraplegic should not starve because of her unwanted condition. And, it might be the case that the paraplegic is knowledgable about household construction, a knowledge it would be unjust of her to withhold in order to extract goods (ex: food) from her well-fed, yet clueless and homeless neighbors. Members of a community, Cohen argues, can maximize welfare while preserving liberty by “finding oneself in the other” (to quote the title of a posthumous collection of his essays) and providing for one another out of fraternity and compassion.

Is this some Utopian fantasy? Cohen thinks not. There are plenty of historical examples of egalitarianism in action, from the primitive communism of tribal societies, to the centuries of Christian monasticism and communism (ex: Shakers), to post-war Britain. However, we all know what it feels like to ignore the shrewd, calculating, rational-actor side of ourselves and joyously help others – and that is when we are together with family. Here is how the economist Richard Wolff describes the corrosive effects of the market mentality on filial bonds:

You’ve all had turkey made by mama and you’ve sat around and enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. And now we’re done at the end of the meal, and Mama says to you, “Oh, darling, would you please clear the plates and take the garbage outside so we can enjoy the rest of the evening.” And you, having just been taught a lot about markets, say, “Yes, Mama, of course. I will perform this service for everyone in the room, as long as each person gives me a dollar.” […] A market is what Papa does not have and does not want in the house. He wants goods and services produced by household members distributed according to criteria of love, respect, need and desire. Mama didn’t charge family members for pieces of the turkey she bought, cleaned, cooked and served. You are not allowed to establish a market inside the house for the cleaning service you were asked to perform. The market is banned, papa explains, because a market would destroy the love amongst us, would be incompatible with the family relationships.

Once the functionings of the economy are viewed in purely technocratic terms, and its ethical substrate is neglected, then the economy loses its original purpose: the satisfaction of everyone’s basic needs. (It’s for this reason that Rousseau reminds us in his Discourse on Political Economy that the linguistic and moral etymology of the word ‘economy’ derives from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘family’ or ‘household.’) Or, as John Dewey more eloquently put it,

When social efficiency as measured by product or output is urged as an ideal in a would-be democratic society, it means that the depreciatory estimate of the masses characteristic of an aristocratic community is accepted and carried over. But if democracy has a moral and ideal meaning, it is that a social return be demanded from all and that opportunity for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all. The separation of the two aims […] is fatal to democracy; the adoption of the narrower meaning of efficiency deprives it of its essential justification [emphasis added].

In other words, the obligation to look after our children, elderly, and neighbors does not subside with the introduction of metallurgy, the Taylorized factory, or high-frequency trading.

Taken together, Cohen’s arguments effectively push back against Rawls’s idea that the only way to improve the condition of the worst off in society is through the promise of monetary reward for some and its resultant inequality. The effectiveness of his critique was made possible by Rawls’s ambiguities and his occasional sensitivity to fraternalism and an entertainment of luck egalitarianism in the original position. In other words, Cohen revealed within Rawls a latent hostility to inequality based on a moral aversion to the exploitation of the least capable. However, as mentioned at the outset, there is a competing argument in defense of inequality – one with an entirely different ethical-philosophical basis that has no tolerance for mushy sentimentalism.

Robert Nozick argues for a minimalist state in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Beginning with a state of nature, Nozick believes that territorial bands will inevitably form for security purposes. As the community grows in size and a division of labor becomes necessary, eventually some people will be expected to devote their energies into protecting the group against outsiders and also into ensuring that no one in the group takes the property of another group member. However, he refuses to allow this prototypical state to acquire many further tasks. The state’s responsibility, he claims, is to provide the maximum amount security that is consistent with the protection of each member’s liberty, liberty which cannot be violated for any reason. This is Nozick’s thesis of “self-ownership;” man has complete control over his life, including his actions, talents, and any goods or property that he acquires without fraud or coercion.

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002)

Libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick

Nozick argues that inequality will certainly arise because everyone will have different combinations of luck, effort, choice, and talent that determine their wealth and income. This resultant inequality is fair so long as self-ownership is respected. He rules out any equalizing policies on behalf of the government, since redistributive taxation is a form of theft and thus a violation of one’s inherent sovereignty. (In this respect, he differs from the libertarian James Buchanan, who argues that estate taxes may be used to fund education in order to compensate for inequalities that result from birth, i.e. from factors that are beyond one’s control. Nozick does not regard such disadvantages as requiring redress.)

Unlike his progressive or linear critique of Rawls, Cohen’s arguments against Nozick are pointillist and comprehensive. Because he cannot disprove Nozick’s thesis of self-ownership (it is unfalsifiable in the Popperian sense), Cohen’s goal is to indicate why self-ownership (narrowly construed) does not necessarily produce equality. Cohen’s critique also exhumes and rebuts Nozick’s philosophical and ethical assumptions that undergird his ideological deference to wealth, power, and inequality.

Central to Marx’s thinking (Cohen belonged to the tiny school of Analytic Marxism) is the concept of surplus labor: a portion of the laborer’s output will always be appropriated by the owner. He cannot be paid in full for his labor, since, if he were, the owner would receive no profits. It is for this reason that, even when a worker is paid in full, he is still deprived of a payment for his surplus labor. Marx referred to this hidden exploitation as “theft.” If this “theft’ description is a legitimate one, then the worker is deprived, in Nozickian – rather than Marxian terms – of the full fruits of his labor. In other words, the owner is discreetly violating the worker’s self-ownership.

It is now no surprise that (the early) Cohen fully endorsed Marx’s materialist view of history, in which the motor of history was the class antagonism, and the liberation of mankind would occur as soon as workers recognized and overturned their exploitation. By abolishing the class relationship, workers would themselves take hold of the means of production rather than sell their labor to its owners. Again, Cohen here is not endorsing some quixotic, unrealistic dream. As John Restakis describes in Humanizing the Economy, workplace democracies – cooperatives – are located in over eighty countries around the world and include well known businesses such as Land O’Lakes, Ace Hardware, and Whole Foods. In fact, the UN recognized the ability of these democratized businesses to promote empowerment and equity by dubbing 2012 the “International Year of Cooperatives.” Cohen’s criticism implies that it is in commonly owned workplaces where the concept of “self-ownership” achieves its greatest realization, because workers fully participate in decisions about the use and value of their labor rather than submit to authoritarian and exploitative “relations of production.”

Moreover, Cohen believes (contra Nozick) that it is possible to uphold self-ownership and still produce social equality. Imagine, he says, that you have two workers, Able and Infirm, who are granted self-ownership: Able is a perfectly capable worker, while Infirm is completely incapacitated. In the Nozickian world, Infirm, absent some miracle of charity, is likely to live a very difficult life of hunger – or worse, while Able will, with enough effort, achieve a life of prosperity. In Cohen’s re-adaptation of this thought experiment, he stipulates that, rather than land being up-for-grabs as it is with Nozick, it is jointly owned by Able and Infirm. Able is not able to work the land without the approval of Infirm. Under these conditions, Infirm can demand that Able may only produce goods (ex: bananas) if Infirm receives enough bananas to live off of. Now, Nozick may object to this scenario on the grounds that Able’s freedom is only “formal,” since he lacks genuine autonomy, in this case, to work the land as he pleases. But this is precisely Cohen’s point. The disappointing, merely formal self-ownership that restricts Able in Cohen’s scenario (which Nozick would reject) is actually identical to the formal, restricted freedom “enjoyed” by the propertyless worker in Nozick’s world, a worker who must either be exploited by a capitalist or starve. This scenario reveals that although “the freedom of which Nozick speaks can be reconciled with equality, that is only because it is a very confined freedom.” He claims that, beyond these two scenarios of differently unsatisfactory accounts of freedom, there lies a “real freedom” which can only be obtained if there are restrictions placed on self-ownership.

Related to the above criticism of Nozick’s misreading of exploitative labor relations is Cohen’s critique of Nozick’s view on the legitimate uses of public and private property, as well as under what conditions the former may be converted into the latter. For Cohen, the scarcity of property leads to a rapid privatization of land and resources, which creates a large population – and future generations of – propertyless citizens. The law’s protection of property owners, he argues, inevitably leads to a loss of freedom for those who were unfortunate enough to inherit property themselves, or the means to acquire it.

For Nozick, land and resources may be brought under private ownership so long as two conditions are met: (1) “enough and as good” property is left over for others, and (2) person B is not worse off after land-grabber A stakes his claim, or, in other words, if B is no worse off than if the property had remained in common use.

The first problem that Cohen sees with this view toward appropriation is that it can lead to the inefficient use of resources. For instance, A might be a poorer manager of the property than B, since B is more creative and organized, but since A got there first, he may acquire and keep the land, because B is not worse off than before the acquisition took place.

Secondly, Cohen claims that Nozick erroneously holds to Locke’s theory of labor to justify this initial appropriation of land; Locke believed that labor comprises 99% (“ninety-nine hundredths”) of the total value of any finished product. If this were so, then the unequal access to resources that appropriators enjoy would not be the major cause of inequality – it would be the labor that they added to those resources that really counted. In other words, according to Locke and Nozick, unequal access to the means of production as a result of primitive accumulation is not unjust, because natural resources like land and water comprise just 1% of the final product’s total value. No egalitarian distribution of resources or equal ownership of the means of production would therefore substantially improve the lot of the poor, whose poverty must be a consequence of their indolence. But Cohen cautions against Marxists accepting Locke’s and Nozick’s theory, even though Marxists adhere, after all, to the ‘labor theory of value.’ Cohen is mindful that Marx rebuked the Gotha Programme because it contained the statement that “labour is the source of all wealth and all culture,” reminding his followers that this formulation neglected the distinction between exchange value, which labor produces, and use value, which comes from the object’s pre-commodification utility. Thus, since Locke and Nozick are wrong to regard labor as the primary ingredient in creating wealth, the unequal distribution of land and resources is significant and an unjust cause of inequality.

Moreover, Cohen asserts that Nozick mistakenly sees non-privatized land not as jointly owned property, but as unowned property. For Marxists like Cohen, this is a crucial error, since Marx demonstrated that, far from being a peaceful process, “primitive accumulation” involved the forcible expulsion of large communities from their commonly owned land so that it would become the private property of the new capitalist class, who could then rely on the freshly landless people to work the privately owned fields and factories for pay. For Cohen, this rapid appropriation of commonly owned land constitutes the moment of capitalism’s ‘original sin,’ the injustice of which infects the entire relationship between the landed “aristocracy” (to invoke Dewey) and the dispossessed in a manner similar to the Christian theme of ‘total depravity.’

It is this realization that calls into question Nozick’s primary defense of inequality, which is the inviolability of one’s legitimately acquired wealth. Any change in the distribution of wealth is just, Nozick claims, so long as the transaction itself is just, i.e. without fraud or coercion. Nozick famously illustrated this concept with the Wilt Chamberlain example: if a million people willingly pay a quarter to see Chamberlain play basketball, then his income of $250,000 is just, since he acquired his wealth legitimately, and no one may lay claim to it.

Now, one may question the legitimacy of an ethical-legal arrangement that so handsomely rewards those born with random advantages and harms those born with unelected disadvantages, but in this case, the concern is broader; intergenerational. What is one to do about the enhanced social standing and mobility of the family of an Alex Rodriguez, whose deceitfully earned money has already been spent, saved, and invested? I suspect he would regard, say, the lucrative investments of illegitimately acquired money to be unjust. If so, would this insight not delegitimize the contemporary inequitable distribution of ownership and wealth set in motion by a previous, unjust moment of primitive accumulation? In other words, some people enter this ready to inherit a family business or live off the rents of their thieving forbearers, while most people enter a pre-possessed world, with only their labor to sell. How exactly is this situation just?

Now, the Nozickian might retort that, while most people are indeed born into a largely appropriated world, through years of hard work and prudence, one can join the ownership class. This possibility is indeed true on the individual level, but it does not excuse the in-built, unavoidable structural injustice that requires a permanent division between those who own and labor on the means of production on the societal level. Taken to its logical extreme, a world of all owners and no workers would be unthinkable and unworkable. For the ownership class to maintain its dominance, there must be a much larger pool of desperate workers. Cohen, in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, drives home this point by quoting Marx himself:

The truth is this, that in this bourgeois society every workman, if he is an exceedingly clever and shrewd fellow, and gifted with bourgeois instincts and favoured by an exceptional fortune, can possibly convert himself into an exploiteur du travail d’autrui. But if there were no travail to be exploité, there would be no capitalist nor capitalist production.

Moreover, Nozick goes to great lengths to preserve the unequal distribution of access to the means of production by ruling out the provision of resources for self-promotion, such as a public education. According to Nozick, taxation for education involves an impingement on his wealth, to which only he alone is entitled. Or, put more sharply, there is no guarantee of an equality of opportunity in a Nozickian world. It is with observations like this one that the contrast between Nozick and Rawls is most visible. It should strike most people as cosmically unfair that the children of the Rockefeller’s or the du Pont’s should be gifted such a privileged start to life, while a blind child from a poor Appalachian household should face a life of far greater frustrations and limitations – by the sheer circumstances of their respective births. It requires an impressive ideological commitment to the concept of self-ownership to justify the magnitude of desperation, social stasis, and inequality that it entails. In fact, it is the recognition of this brutality that caused Nozick to amend his thought more than a decade later. In 1989, he called his 1970’s libertarian philosophy “seriously inadequate” and allowed for a new view of the human project that one could plausibly interpret as social-democratic:

There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion.

While Cohen comes off as a ruthless communist next to the libertarian Nozick, Cohen’s egalitarianism is nuanced and flexible. He does not mandate the impossible dream of equality of welfare, in which each person’s enjoyment is identical to his neighbor’s, nor does he advocate an equality of opportunity to welfare (since he believes welfare, or utility, is too subjective a metric for comparative purposes). Instead, he calls for an “equality of access to advantage, according to which there should be equality of opportunity not for welfare alone but for a vector which includes that, and resources, and need satisfaction, and, perhaps, other advantages.”

By “equality of access to advantage,” Cohen means that inequalities that arise from involuntary disadvantages are unjust. Disadvantages include any kind of involuntary (unlucky) impairment, such as a deficiency of resources (ex: education, tools, mental or physical limitations), as well as need satisfaction (hunger, thirst, shelter, etc.). Cohen even refers to unwanted “expensive tastes” as a kind of disadvantage for which the possessor of this taste should not be penalized. As a perfectly convincing example, Cohen cites the equal pay policy at libraries, by which members who prefer rare art books pay no more than those who enjoy novels. The fact that libraries are so well respected and have long adhered to this policy supports Cohen’s optimism that expensive tastes can be tolerated and satisfied without resorting to market-pricing, a mechanism which often punishes those with rare or unusual tastes and rewards those who conform to a more basic preference (to test this idea, just compare book prices between Cohen’s earlier publications and, say, Fifty Shades of Grey).

The keystone to Cohen’s ethical-political philosophy is an egalitarian ethos, one that recognizes the brevity of life, its tendency toward misery and decay in much of the world, and the realization of our common humanity and the possibility of its collective improvement. These flashes of solidarity occur only occasionally in our lives: with the ecstasy that accompanies the witness of birth or love, in a rare moment of religious or aesthetic exultation, during a solemn walk through a cemetery and the reminder of our mortality. Cohen is calling for a harnessing of this solidarity and its institutionalization in all of the autonomous and disconnected spheres of modern life – in the workplace, at play, and yes, in the market.


About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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5 Responses to What, If Anything, Can Justify Inequality?

  1. Pingback: Marxism Explained, or Fredric Jameson on Pretty Much Everything | Andrew Gripp

  2. Lauren Felice says:


    This is a fantastically well-analyzed discussion of these three thinkers. Having just read all three in conjunction myself, I was thrilled to find this. Thank you!

    First, a small point: Though I may be in error, I have a slightly different interpretation of the difference principle. To me, the crux of the difference principle is to maximize according the expectations of the least well off first. If we have a utility curve, we are to select the point of distribution on the curve which maximizes subject to the least well off person’s indifference curve, even if it does not maximize utility overall. This may seem only a slight difference from your discussion, but I do think it is less permissive of inequality. Using your banana example, if the least well off person should expect 8 bananas, then the 7-10-10 distribution does not abide by Rawls’ principles. We are instead to take the bananas we found, first give 8 to the least well off person, and then we can be unequal with the rest. This indeed still does justify inequality, and is subject to the same criticisms, but is better than simply allowing anything that betters the least well off by any fraction.

    I think a lot of Rawls’ argument, at least in A Theory of Justice, can be understood from the fact that he is beginning from the original position. He is not trying to justify or prevent inequality, he is trying to build a system from scratch that people under the veil of ignorance would seek. To crudely put it, they would want the liberty/opportunity to be successful if they are lucky, but also want to insure against being unlucky. I think this is tacitly part of his justification for inequality. Rising tides raise all boats over time, too. People don’t want to be stuck in a static world, so if the world highly values an invention from an entrepreneur, that should be encouraged so long as every person has the opportunity to become an entrepreneur. This is where I think some of Cohen’s semantic arguments have some grey areas. Rawls’ rewarding according to primary goods is a lot like rewarding according to value (a principle which Hayek, interestingly, also argues for in Equality, Value, and Merit) and goods/value is a derivative of input, and thus effort. Also, Rawls may not specify the ability to choose a job, but protections for fair and open positions to me imply at least some protection for movement between positions and liberty of pursuing them.

    As you astutely summarize, Cohen’s argument for allocating positions is awfully coercive without fraternity. The notion of fraternal spirit is what I find most interesting here. When I read both Cohen and Nozick, I found them a bit stuck in their preconceptions. I’m just tossing impressions out there, but if Cohen is so reliant upon unenforced fraternal spirit, why is it impossible to him that the same fraternal spirit could be found in Nozick’s world? Nozick’s only real principle is that the state be minimal. I don’t think he’d have philosophical opposition to a voluntary cooperative, as you describe Cohen preferring. I understand Cohen’s critiques of Nozick’s institutions, or lack thereof, but given that the realization of Cohen’s world itself is dependent on voluntary fraternity, I’m not sure why he doesn’t allow that possibility for Nozick’s world. In my opinion, failing to do so weakens his argument. People in Nozick’s world are the least affected by external institutions (they have very few external institutions). He gives no reason why people would not be fraternal in this environment, but would be in his.

    Thanks again for this piece!

  3. agripp87 says:


    I’m glad my article was helpful. I wrote something like this post as a research paper for a grad class last year called “Ethics and Economics.” What brings you to these thinkers?

    Your observation about the difference principle is most certainly correct. I wonder, however, how others in a community are to respect the preferences of the least well off. Suppose, as you suggest, that the paraplegic wants there to be an 8-10-10 or a 10-10-10 distribution of the bananas. How does this subjective preference compare to the objective (fractional) standard: an increase in the number of her primary goods? In other words, can you expand on your observation? It has been some time since I have even looked at an indifference curve.

    Also, your point about voluntary associations is a legitimate one. I do suspect that Nozick would have no problems with a voluntary commune in which something like luck egalitarianism is practiced. However, if one subscribes to moral realism (as I do), voluntarism often accompanies the existence of mass suffering: those who refuse to help minimize injustice by invoking self-ownership are guilty of some moral misdemeanor. It seems, then, that it requires coercion in order to extinguish gross injustice. This seems to be another way at getting at the socialist critique of libertarianism. Voluntarism, the ultimate estimation of the individual and her preferences is a kind of appeal to selfishness, or a ready permission of it. One often hears libertarians make the argument that charitable giving would take care of the power absent some coercive central government. I think Cohen’s argument is (or strongly suggests) that there needs to be (perhaps in the first generation at least?) coercive institutions like a Dewey-ian public education system to instill an egalitarian ethos. You’re right. Cohen does seem to indicate that in his utopia, fraternity would be voluntary. This was certainly his evolved view in his later work. However, I think the admission of moral realism invites an element of coercion – similar to Good Samaritan laws. I imagine Cohen desiring a very expansive interpretation and application of Good Samaritan laws as well as the mandatory moral instruction to participate in those laws. (I recognize my comments above are a bit garbled, but I think my meaning is decipherable somehow.)

    Lastly, I see what you mean by Rawls not intending to defend inequality. When I wrote this research paper, I knew it would be a challenge, because I would be interpreting or translating his political theories into ones about inequality. However, I think Cohen did pick up on Rawls occasional commentary on inequality. Here is the paragraph I wrote that I think picks up on this topic:

    === Rawls states in Political Liberalism that the obvious starting point for his society is one in which “all social primary goods, including income and wealth, should be equal: everyone should have an equal share.” This initial equality obtains because Rawls feels that the “natural distribution of abilities” is arbitrary from a moral point of view. In A Theory of Justice Rawls also expresses dissatisfaction with the realization that “influence of social contingencies still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of talents and abilities.” These quotes reveal that Rawls thinks it is unfair that the initial distribution of goods should be unequal, since this inequality would arise out of different skill sets, which are beyond one’s control. ===

    In other words, Rawls comes off as a luck egalitarian who regrets unequal outcomes based on morally arbitrary disadvantages. But then Rawls dismisses this concern by, as you point out, the influence of other concerns in the initial position, such as the desire not only for some insurance against destitution, but also for social mobility, entrepreneurial risk-taking, etc. Again, I think Cohen gets preoccupied on the questions of moral realism. If social inequity arising from arbitrary disadvantages is abhorrent, then the abhorrence of that inequity trumps what he might construe to be “lesser” concerns, such as innovation. In other words, maybe, on this hypothetical banana-paradise, resources have to be spent fulfilling the immediate needs of paraplegics before the crew begins designing boomerangs for recreation. If this microcosmic example holds, then ought it not be applicable macrocosmically?

    Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you appreciated my efforts. You may also like my article on the foundation and application of luck egalitarianism (which is considerably shorter and less philosophically loaded).

    • Lauren says:

      I just finished reading all three in an undergraduate course called “Justice”. This post is basically the syllabus!

      Well, to expand on the indifference curves point, my impression is that Rawls doesn’t much care about “how others in the community are to respect the preferences of the least well off.” I think this is where it matters that he’s making an institutional argument. I can only speak to A Theory of Justice, but I think he’s talking at the level of policy-making. If the institutions happen to lead to changed cultural norms, that’s great. Also, it’s not about preferences, it’s about expectations – which he uses in an oddly mechanical “expected value” kind of way. He often uses the example of the laborer vs. the entrepreneur. So, if as a society we determine the expected value of being a laborer to be X amount of lifetime earnings, we form policy so as to prioritize the realization of that expectation for all laborers, regardless of one’s morally arbitrary bad luck. The entrepreneur may have higher expectations because we value his contributions more highly, thus allowing for inequality, but we prioritize satisfying fully the laborer’s expectations first. One of my complaints about Rawls is that he doesn’t spend much time spelling out how these notions could work in practice, but the point is that it’s different than preference, and it’s also different than a fractional objective improvement.

      I agree with what you’re saying about Cohen. I think he doesn’t get around the liberal’s objection to him, which is: Isn’t the worst injustice the restriction of liberty? This is a sticking point where they just won’t agree. I also agree with the impression of Rawls as a luck egalitarian. The thing I think is a shame about Cohen’s discarding of “lesser things” like innovation is that they can do the most to improve the condition of the least well off. A static society is only ok if it’s static in a great place. What if we had halted innovation before the invention of vaccines, heating, water purification, etc. Admittedly, this may be a dramatic reading of Cohen’s ideal society, but I do think he tends to downplay the role these things play serving his own end of justice.

      Thanks for the response!

      • agripp87 says:


        I have not read A Theory of Justice in its entirety, and quite possibly not at all first-hand. My exposure to this work has been through the keyhole of Cohen’s critique. However, I understand the difference principle to be a matter of the distribution of concrete goods (and not welfare, though I may be mistaken). Therefore, I see the difference principle as being measurable objectively (goods, wealth) rather than subjectively (welfare, utility, indifference, etc.). Perhaps I have this wrong, and if so, would you let me know in Rawls’ work where he addresses this matter?

        As to the liberal question: no, I don’t think (I’m not sure about Cohen here) that the restriction of liberty is the greatest injustice. If we consider the Good Samaritan principle, and accept its legitimacy, then we recognize that the suffering of others whom we can help without a debilitating cost to ourselves imposes a moral duty on bystanders. Peter Singer’s “Shallow Pond” example rightly gets at this: the rescue of a drowning child requires the action of anyone who can save him. One may even ruin a brand new suit in the process, but the law (perhaps it is an unjust one) recognizes that there are limits to liberty – ones that concern the value of life. Of course, this is a simplification, but I think it is sufficient to defeat the argument that liberty is inviolable.

        As for the question of stasis and innovation. First, I think this is a false dilemma. Einstein, for instance, was a great innovator but also a socialist who believed in satisfying the needs of the community or humanity before people began stocking up on consumer iPads or home movie theaters (if you permit the anachronisms). I think this is the kind of critique that socialists like Cohen are making. Innovation must first be used for satisfying basic human needs before it is applied to “lesser concerns.” The criticism is twofold: (1) the ideology of churning out iPads is what is best for improving the lot of the least well off (Rawls) and (2) the ideology that regards life-threatening of poverty as an occasion, at best, for charity (Nozick) rather than as an ethical emergency in which all able bystanders are morally implicated.

        Thanks for the follow-up. Do I have it correct that G.A. Cohen is now read in undergraduate classrooms? He was not required in my class (I stumbled upon him somehow).

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