Egalitarians believe that inequality is unjust and justice requires a society to move steadily toward greater equality. This is the aim of proportional taxation, equal opportunity programs, and the various anti-poverty policies of a welfare state. These policies cost money. The egalitarian approach to getting it is to tax those who have more in order to benefit those who have less. The absurdity of this is that egalitarians suppose that justice requires ignoring whether people deserve what they have and whether they are responsible for what they lack. They suppose that it is just to ignore the requirements of justice.
Here is a consequence of egalitarianism. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, men’s life expectancy is on the average about seven years less than women’s. There is thus an inequality between men and women. If egalitarians really mean that it would be better if everyone enjoyed the same level of social and economic benefits, then they must find the inequality between the life expectancy of men and women unjust. Following their reasoning, it ought to be a requirement of justice to equalize the life expectancy of men and women. This can be done, for instance, by men having more and better healthcare and working shorter hours than women.
Moreover, an inequality that follows from the unequal life expectancy of men and women is that men are less likely to benefit after retirement from Social Security and Medicare. As things are, men and women are required to contribute an equal percentage of their earnings to these programs. This is clearly unjust from the egalitarian point of view: Why should men be required to subsidize the health and wealth of women? The egalitarian policy this suggests is to decrease the levy on men, or increase it on women. There is much that egalitarian policies could do to reduce the inequalities flowing from the disparate life expectancy of men and women.
Why Not Government-Sponsored Pleasure Centers?
There remains the question of how to compensate the present generation of men for the injustice of having shorter lives than women. No compensation can undo the damage, but it may make it easier to bear. The obvious policy is to set up programs designed to provide for men at least some of the benefits they would have enjoyed had their life expectancy been equal to women’s. There is a lot of pleasure that could be had in those seven years that men are not going to have. One efficient way of compensating them for their loss would be to set up government-sponsored pleasure centers in which men may spend the hours and days gained from having shorter working days and longer vacations.
These absurdities, which follow from egalitarianism, cast doubt on its fundamental logic. This ought to lead to the suspicion that the measures more usually associated with egalitarianism—anti-poverty programs, various welfare legislation, proportional taxation, the preferential treatment of minorities and women—suffer from an analogous absurdity. One may actually come to suspect that the familiar egalitarian policies do not appear absurd only because they are made familiar by endlessly repeated rhetoric that disguises the lack of reasons for them.
The Egalitarians’ Stereotypes
Can egalitarians avoid these absurdities? They might claim that there is a significant disanalogy between the unequal life expectancy of men and women, and the inequality between rich and poor, whites and blacks, or men and women. The difference, egalitarians might say, is that the poor, blacks, and women are unequal as a result of injustice, such as exploitation, discrimination, or prejudice, while this is not true of the life expectancy of men.
A moment’s thought tells us this claim is untenable. The “men” category includes poor men, and also black men, both of whom, according to egalitarians, have suffered injustice in the past. And blacks and women include high-achievers, people with considerable wealth, and recent immigrants who came to this country voluntarily and could not have suffered from past injustice here. It is but the crudest prejudice to think of men as deplorable, women as sexually abused great talents, and blacks as ghetto-dwellers doomed to a life of poverty, crime, and addiction. Many men have been victims of injustice, and many women and blacks have not suffered from it. Overcoming injustice requires a much more precise identification of the victims than merely membership in such amorphous groups as those of women, blacks, or the poor. It requires asking and answering the question of why specific individuals are in a position of inequality.
Egalitarians, however, ignore this requirement. According to them, the mere fact of inequality is sufficient to warrant redistribution and compensation. Regardless of whether egalitarians are right about this, they face a dilemma. If the policies of redistribution and compensation do take into account the extent to which people are responsible for being in a position of inequality, then the justification of these policies must go beyond what egalitarians can provide. For the justification must involve consideration of the choices people make, as well as their merit, effort, and responsibility. To the extent to which this is done, the justification ceases to be egalitarian.
If, on the other hand, the policies of redistribution and compensation do not take into account the responsibility people have for their inequality, then there is no disanalogy between the inequality of men and women in respect to life expectancy, and the poor, blacks, and women who are unequal in other respects. Consistent egalitarian policies would then have to aim to overcome all inequalities, and that is just what produces the absurd policies spelled out above.
Egalitarians may try to avoid absurdity in another way. They may say that it is unjust that some people’s prospects at birth are radically inferior to those of others. But this inequality is a matter of statistical necessity, not of justice. Being a necessity, it holds in all societies, even in a socialist heaven. Given any basis of ranking the prospects of individuals at birth, some will rank higher and others lower. Those who rank lowest will have prospects radically inferior to those who rank highest. Complaining about this statistical necessity is as reasonable as lamenting differences in intelligence or beauty. To call this statistical necessity unjust is absurd.
Suppose that egalitarianism is seen for what it is: an absurd attempt to deny, in the name of justice, that people should be held responsible for their actions and treated as they deserve based on their merits or demerits. A nagging doubt remains. It is undeniable that there are in our society innocent victims of misfortune and injustice. Their inequality is not their fault, they are not responsible for it, and they do not deserve to be in a position of inequality. The emotional appeal of egalitarianism is that it recognizes the plight of these people and proposes ways of helping them. Taking advantage of the compassion of decent people, egalitarians then accuse their society of unjustly ignoring the suffering of innocent victims.
Those Who Suffer through No Fault of Their Own Should Be Helped
What needs to be said in response to this frequently heard charge is that anyone committed to justice will want people to have what they deserve and not to have what they do not deserve. Innocent victims do not deserve to suffer, yet they do. A decent society should do what it can to alleviate their suffering. But this has nothing to do with equality. What is objectionable is not that some people have less than others, that millionaires have less than billionaires. What is objectionable is that some people, through no fault of their own, lack the basic necessities. They are our fellow citizens, and because of that we should feel compassion for their plight.
Furthermore, the plight of innocent victims who lack the basic necessities is not ignored. On the contrary, they are being helped by their fellow taxpaying citizens. A family with an annual income of $100,000 (being in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, and depending on deductions taken) would be likely to pay at least $25,000 in federal, state, property, and school taxes. About 62 percent of the federal budget is spent on mandated benefits, the main ones being Medicaid, Social Security, Medicare, and various welfare programs. Applying that percentage at the family level, we can say that about 62 percent of the family’s annual taxes, or roughly $15,000, is spent on these programs. It thus sends over 15 percent of its annual income to the government, including for the purpose of assisting the innocent victims. This ought to acquit the family of the charge of shamefully ignoring the plight of their fellow citizens that egalitarians baselessly level against them.
Yet the relentless egalitarian propaganda eagerly parroted by the media would have us believe that our society is guilty of dooming people to a life of poverty. What this ignores is the unprecedented success of our society in having 13.5 percent of the population live below a very generously defined poverty level and 86.5 percent above it. The typical ratio in past societies was closer to the reverse. It is a cause for celebration, not condemnation, that for the first time in history a very large segment of the population has escaped poverty. If egalitarians had a proper historical perspective, they would be in favor of the political and economic system that has made this possible, rather than advocating absurd policies that undermine it.