Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An Ethical Basis for Global Egalitarianism

In this short essay I want to clarify some basic differences between my way of thinking about equality and what I take to be the forms of egalitarianism now more common in developed countries. I hold egalitarianism to be an ethical issue before it is a political one, and to be a political issue because it is ethical. Because the law is backed by the state's monopoly of force, it should only contain requirements we believe essential to the treatment we believe everyone has the right to expect of others. But, for the same reason, law should never contain any requirements that make it impossible to behave ethically. The US is on the verge of making it impossible to live on the world average income, which some of us regard as an ethical requirement. Because this is so, living on the world average income arouses political issues. Consequently I think it appropriate to introduce the idea into the political forum.

The basis of my position is close to Peter Singer's position in Chapter 8 of Practical Ethics, but he doesn't examine his facts closely enough and hedges on his conclusions. The political consequences of my ethical position are close to G.B. Shaw's version of Socialism, which he says means equality of income or nothing, but I reject his equivocal, and possibly hypocritical, position that Socialists need not practice equality of income before its institutionalization. Despite the brilliance and good will of more modern exponents of egalitarianism like Rawls and Sen, I believe that simple equality of income is still the best guide to correcting the irrationalities and waste of the current order. Rawls, Sen, and other recent analysts provide so many rationalizations for failures to get down to the basic work of helping the majority gain access to necessary resources that they blur our perception of the magnitude of waste, cruelty, and corruption in the present order and squelch our desire for change.

My basic project for the last seven years has been to live only in the way that everybody on earth could afford to live if money were evenly distributed, that is, if all the people spending more than the average were to give their excess over the average to those with incomes below the average. The first person I know of who set out on this project is Charles Gray of Eugene, Oregon, whom I hope will become an inspiration to many millions of people. Upon learning of my interest in living on the world average income in late 1996, a Quaker friend gave me Gray's hand-made book, Toward a Non-Violent Economics. Since then I have been experimenting with my own, somewhat different, conception of that way of life, reading selected topics in economics and social theory with the goal of clarifying my own position, and thinking through some of its intricacies. I find now that some relevant basic principles are clear to me, and that they differ from what I have read and heard, and so I want to state them succinctly for other people's consideration.

1) I am not certain whether all persons have a right to equal access to the world's resources, but I am certain that the only reason one can hold that newborns do not have an equal right is because one regards them as the property or extensions of differently situated adults. Differential valuations of newborns cannot follow from any other qualities of the children. Medical and psychiatric evidence indicates that the most crucial time of life is that before birth and the first three years after birth. Genuine equality of opportunity depends upon the delivery of equality during those first four years. Without institutionalizing the whole of society there is no way to deliver equality during that time without delivering equality to the parents or guardians of the children. In order to acquire equal rights for children I therefore am willing to hold that all persons have equal rights to income.

This is a decision in the light of modern reality. The world per capita income is now $6490 adjusted for purchasing power parity. That's plenty of money. Adjusted to the purchasing power of the Indian rupee, for instance, that's $1359 per person per year, or Rs. 62,400. For an individual it is inconvenient but feasible. Multiplied four or five times, however, for a family of four or five, it is comfortable. The world is so productive now that there is enough for everyone on earth to live that well. I believe virtually anyone who tries for a few years to live on the world average income will find that the restrictions of consumption are not onerous enough to justify denying others access to equal resources.

2) At any one moment wealth is finite. Therefore one's wealth can always be expressed as a fraction of the whole. If I think I am entitled to more than the average fraction of the whole I must confess that I believe someone else is only entitled to less than the average. On what grounds shall I say I should have more than someone else? (When I collect all the arguments I have heard to justify one person having more than someone else I find that I can discover a contrary argument for each of them. I must also confess that for any argument I come up with, I am quite certain that someone else can come up with an argument that he or she should have more than I.)

More common forms of egalitarianism seem to assume that an egalitarian having more than the average needs only come up with an argument for having more than someone else. I think I have to show more than that. I have to show why, because I have chosen to have more than the average, I am justified in requiring someone else to have less than the average. This is much more difficult to do. I need to show why someone should have less than the average because I have chosen on my own to consume the difference between what someone (or some combination of persons) need to rise to the average from some point below it. Hence I must show that my own consumption justifies denying consumption of the average to someone else. Consequently if I don't want to be egalitarian in the sense of having the average I must justify someone else's being unable to reach the average. So in my terms what I take to be the more common understanding of egalitarianism implies that its proponent believes that some people are not entitled to the average income. On what basis can an egalitarian make this judgement while also judging that, as a consequence of his or her own entitlement to more than the average, someone else must be content with less?

3) More common forms of egalitarianism seem to argue that having income over the average is justified because the world's social arrangements are irrational and unjust. They certainly are, of course. But I don't see how that justifies my having more than the average. If the world's social arrangements are irrational and unjust, they are certainly more irrational and unjust to people trying to live on less than the average than they are to me. How can I answer the person to whom I am denying the right to the average? Shall I say I might get sick, social security might be inadequate, my children might not care for me? If that is true of me, it is truer of the person to whom my over-consumption has denied access to the average. So my argument is reduced to special pleading. Certainly those I have denied are in a better position to do special pleading than I am.

4) The reason income should be shared equally is because it is a good that produces benefits in inverse proportion to the quantity one has. Income is most beneficial to the most impoverished. To the community as a whole, its benefits increase the more evenly it is distributed. Though most economists do not state these conclusions before popular audiences, they are solidly entrenched in basic economic theory. The income component of the UNDP's
human development index since 1999 has used a formula of Sen's that expresses the marginal utility of income according to a modern version of the law of diminishing returns. That formula shows unequivocally that money produces much more benefit when it is spent by people who have less than the world average income than when it is spent by people having more than the average. Any transfer from someone above the average to someone below the average thus produces an increase in benefits. Therefore, so long as I give away my own surplus above the average to people below the average I increase the actual beneficial effects of my money. Any money I spend above the average yields less benefit to me than it would yield if I gave it to
someone who has less than the average. The increase in benefit by such a transfer increases in direct proportion to the distance between the incomes of the transferor and transferee. If this is the case, how can I make an egalitarian argument for keeping more than the average?

Let me be more exact. It is a secret well kept from the general public that
it is a basic proposition of classical economic theory, going back to
Bentham, that any quantity of money produces more benefits for the poor than
for the rich. Even the World Bank accepts this form of the Law of
Diminishing Returns when it uses Anand and Sen's formula for computing the
Gross Domestic Product Index, which discounts the benefit of a nation's per
capita income on a logarithmic scale between $100 and $40,000. Because
currency exchange is noy yet fixed by purchasing power parity, as the Nobel
Prize-winning economist Tobin recommends, truly bizarre and unconscionable
discrepancies exist between the benefits obtainable by money spent in one
country at its average income and those obtained at the average income level
of another. For instance, Anand and Sen's formula implies that one dollar
spent in India at the level of the Indian GNP per capita produces as much as
benefit as $18.91 spent in the U.S.A. at the level of the U.S. GNP per
capita (or as much as $24.68 spent at the Swiss GNP per capita, $21.85 spent
at the Japanese GNP per capita, $17.56 at the German, $16.52 at the French,
$16.25 at the British, $14.23 at the Irish.) This means that as the present
world monetary system operates, an American earning $30,600 and wanting to
spend $1 has the choice between, say, spending it on himself to receive $1
worth of benefits, or letting an Indian earning $450 a year spend it for
18.91 times the benefit. In the case of the U.S., a factor of 3.96 is
attributable to the sheer wastefulness of the American way of life, and a
complementary factor of 4.775 is attributable to the Bretton Woods
Institutions' and the currency exchange market's exploitation of poor
countries. Knowledge of the 3.96 factor should make people in developed
countries radically change their way of life (but of course will have only a
minute impact.) Knowledge of the 4.775 factor should make all people who
value justice fight for the abolition of the Bretton Woods Institutions and
for reform of the international currency system.

5) The greatest inequalities that now exist in the world, and those that
International Human Rights Law and the modern constitutions concern
themselves with, are all founded on invidious distinctions of race, caste,
class, religion, gender, and nationality. Nearly all of these distinctions
originated in the domination of victors over defeated, in warfare either
between countries or within them, and all involve domination by physical
force. Most Blacks are poorer than most Whites because White nations
defeated Black nations and colonized them; much of the poverty of most
Asians has similar causes. The upper castes in India rule the other 90% of
the population because the Aryans conquered the Dalit-Bahujans. The
traditionally wealthy in most countries have close ties with their country's
military leaders, while the poor can only escape the oppression of the
police and military by allowing themselves to be recruited as instruments of
it. When differential access to power is based on religion, it is because
one religious group conquered the other. The domination of men over women
is obviously grounded in the greater physical strength of men. And with
only rare and partial exceptions, the wealthier nations owe substantial
amounts of their wealth to their use of victory in war to extract resources
and labor from poorer nations. In the essay Prejudicial Exploitation I
believe I have demonstrated that the major social conflicts created by
traditional exploitation of minority groups can never be resolved without
the majority's (or the elite's) adoption of basic egalitarian principles in
terms of economic power as well as political and social power. The argument
can be extended to international relations.

6) Equalization of income promotes peace. Whether it is argued that wars
are caused by the poor seeking more or by the rich seeking increases in
their advantages over the poor, denial of equal access to resources
certainly causes wars. Wars are the result of power struggles, and most of
them are struggles for access to resources. Most wars in the last century
were not started by the relatively poor, but by relatively wealthy states
bent on expanding their wealth and power. If I want the world to be a
peaceful place, my self-limitation and transfers to those poorer than myself
are based on a principle contrary to the dominant motives for war, certainly
to all the wars my native country has promoted. To me this is a wholly
positive good. Observation of the last fifty years tells me that Churchill'
s argument that the rich are less aggressive than the poor is absolutely
false. Because I believe that most-and all of the worst-wars in the last
five hundred years have been promoted by the rich in the belief that they
are somehow entitled to the resources of poorer countries, I think that the
claim that the poor are entitled to equality is in the actual interests of
peace. In The Common Sense of the Right to Live in the Age of Weapons of
Mass Destruction I've argued that the greatest recent failure of
international law, the International Court of Justice's inability to
proclaim nuclear weapons unequivocally illegal, is grounded in international
law's traditional enforcement of hierarchical institutions such as the
rights of masters over slaves, the rights of property owners to exploit
users of property, the right of private banks and insurance companies to
exploit the holders of national currencies, and the rights of sovereigns
over subjects.

7) Inequality of income destroys culture. The wealthiest nations with 15% of
the world's people have 80% of the world's income, leaving 20% to the other
85% of the people. If one disaggregates the figures to view differences of
wealth within countries, the differences are much greater than that. One
consequence of inequality is that the rich countries, particularly the U.S.,
pour out a huge mass of pseudo-culture for the rest of the world to emulate.
World-wide, the middle classes of all but a few of the wealthiest countries
are overwhelmed by anonymous one-way "communications," and the poor, some of
whom escape that fate because they can't afford it, lack the resources to
build and assert their own cultures. The richness, variety, and authenticity
of the cultures of the world are thus greatly reduced. James Joyce managed
to show Dublin in the light of the world and the world in the light of
Dublin, but the great poet Lakshmiprasad Devkota died in Nepal in absolute
penury and, though ethnomusicologists believe from internal evidence that
hundreds of Spirituals were written by just one person between 1820 and 1850
in Mississippi, that person's name is still unknown. In most places on
earth the individuality that accompanies the passion to create has so little
scope for exploration and recognition, or is so severely punished by the
authoritarian structures that unequal wealth inevitably creates, that we
must assume only a small fraction of the great art could have created in the
last century actually exists.

8) Equalization of income also responds to the need to create an
environmentally sustainable economy. High per capita consumption of
resources in rich countries constitutes the greatest assault on the
environment. The Club of Rome and the Brundtland Report conclude that it is
urgent that economies become sustainable, but never mention the primary
force that creates unsustainable practices, namely the legal requirements
for profit and interest that inevitably result in some combination of
expanded productivity and inflation. The enrichment of some is only possible
by some mixture of growth and the impoverishment of others. If you don't
want growth, you'll get impoverishment. If you don't want impoverishment,
you'll get growth. Consequently so long as the environmental movement
demands sustainability without repudiating the economic engine of growth,
the demand for sustainability condones a silent assault on the poor. It is
ridiculous hypocrisy to talk about sustainability without accepting

9) I find that my life is simpler when I follow my rule. If everyone is
entitled to the average, I am also. Therefore I have a rule for how much to
keep for myself-I needn't go below the average. Of course I can benefit
people well below the average by transferring wealth to them even when I
fall below the average, but my doing so results in less total welfare than
if someone above the average transfers wealth, and it weakens my argument
that people are entitled to the average. It's a kind of Buddhist middle way
principle: the goal is justice, not saintliness. In fact, I don't think
saintliness is good because it romanticizes poverty. Poverty isn't good, it
's bad. If poverty isn't bad, why should the poor want to get out of it,
and why should they be entitled to get out of it?

To a middle class person in a wealthy country, the world average income
seems impossibly low; it probably puts one near or below the national
poverty line, and is conventionally associated with some sort of failure or
disgrace. For such people-and I was one-it takes a while to develop habits
that allow one to adjust to the average, but then practice makes it easy.
After all, roughly 80% of the world's people live on less than the average,
the average being so much higher than the median, so how unburdened should
one be by spending more than 4/5ths of the world's people? One can easily
argue that the sort of global egalitarian practice I advocate can be
improved upon by living on the median global income, or on the average
income of a poor country, or by making some other adjustment below the
income I advocate. It is difficult to argue that global egalitarianism can
make any sense above the world average income.

10) John Rawls derives his basic sense of equality from traditional usages
of distributive justice theories in political, not economic theory. In that
tradition "equality" has meant only "relative" equality, the "avoidance of
extremes of wealth," but there is no extant capitalist country that has less
than the 4:1 ratio of wealth of citizens (not persons) that both Aristotle
and Plato thought destroyed the possibility of equitable government.
Consequently by "equality" John Rawls appears to mean only "equality of a
minimum," not equality per se. He seems to think that it is quite common
that productive and virtuous activities, such as the training and support of
an effective doctor, can justify inequality on the grounds that a certain
inequality will benefit the whole and also will not injure the least well
off. But in fact cases in which these conditions are met are rare. It may
be true that the work of a few professionals, scientists, and officials
clearly contributes the wealth of the whole, clearly requires higher than
average expenditure, and perhaps does not injure the least well off. But
for at least 90% of us an argument can be made either way depending on the
activities and qualities that are regarded as virtuous, productive, and
valuable. Implementation of Rawls' scheme would require either that
everyone come to evaluate activities the same way Rawls does or that
everyone accept the same group to formulate and apply norms. In the first
case one must give up equality of conditioned power, in the second equality
of condign power. One consequence of this problem is delay in

11) Amartya Sen tries to get behind primary goods, income, and expenditure
to reach capabilities. Certainly if capabilities could be equalized it
would be better for those rising from below the average than to have some
more superficial quantity equalized. However, in advocating this position
Sen attempts to make the relatively rare case of the handicapped look more
common than it is and he assumes that most of the handicapped will not be
benefited if they merely receive an equal income. While Rawls obscures the
issues of equalization by using examples that refer to less than 10% of us,
Sen refers to the condition of less than 5% of us to obscure the condition
of the great majority. It is even true that most of the handicapped people
on earth live far below the world average income and guaranteeing everyone
an equal income would produce far more total benefit that denying everyone
an equal income on the ground that equality of income is a bad goal because
some few people must be guaranteed more than the average in order to deliver
average capabilities. By seeking to equalizing capabilities rather than
primary goods as Rawls does, Sen thus presents an illusion of being more
egalitarian, but the effects of his program would not be. Because the
definition of capability is open-ended, moreover, it can easily be expanded
to include such items as "artistic capability" or "IQ capability," and
because attempts to equalize capabilities like those would clearly involve
either a massive eugenics program or penalizing the most talented, a large,
powerful, and anti-democratic bureaucracy would be necessary to implement
capability equality. Creating Sen's version of economic equality would mean
accepting systematic political and probably also social inequality. The
need for complex political action delays individual action.

12) Ethical egalitarianism of expenditure, on the other hand, does not delay
action. My claim is that ethics is more basic than politics. Politics is a
struggle for power over the state's monopoly of force. In democratic
countries the primary method of politics is supposed to be persuasion,
though many others are used. There is no reason to allow oneself to be
persuaded by anyone who does not act on his or her own recommendations.
Therefore practice must precede preaching. But this is only a matter of

Ends are more decisive. If those with less than the average have any moral
right to more than they have, then there is a moral duty to yield some of
one's surplus to them. If there is no duty, there is no right.
Consequently if one recommends any degree of equalization without oneself
acting on a moral duty to equalize, either one must confess that force
should be used on oneself to equalize (which implies one is not responsible
for oneself) or one must hold that those with less should be dependent on
charity. I cannot understand either consequence to be compatible with an
egalitarian position. Therefore I believe that political egalitarianism has
to start with ethical egalitarianism, and that the ethical egalitarian must
believe that those with less are somehow entitled to more. Once I admit
that others are entitled, I admit it is unjust for me to keep more than my
share, however I define it. From that moment forward, I cannot evade the
issue without hypocrisy.

At the end of the Republic Glaucon asks Socrates whether the Republic will
ever come to pass. Socrates answers that probably it will not, but that
this does not affect the dialogue's significance because the dialogue's
purpose was to discover the condition of the soul by seeing it writ large in
the form of the state. In other words, the actual purpose was ethical not
political, for the ethical action is that which one would perform in a good
state. Though I regard Plato's politics as abhorrent, I think the ethical
principle is insightful. One way to know how to do good is to do what you
would do as a matter of course if the whole world were good. I believe that
if the world were good, all children would have an equal right to the world'
s resources. Therefore I must act as I would if that right were generally

13) Ethics must precede politics but cannot circumvent it. If you have more
than the average, as I do, ethics requires political action of you because
if you believe that other people have a right to equality of something, and
that you, having more of that thing than they, have a duty to deliver to
them what they have a right to, then your duty cannot be limited to those
things you can do individually, but extends to those things you can only do
jointly or collectively with others. You will feel this political
obligation if you take the right of the impoverished seriously. That is
appropriate. To be candid, we must admit that most of the benefits those of
us above the average have received in life we have received not because of
our individual virtues but because of our membership in our families, our
occupational and social groups, and our nations. Therefore if we come to
believe that others really have the right to much more than they now have,
we have the duty to act within our group memberships, that is, politically,
to see that their right is actualized. We have that duty until their right
actually is served, and the duty extends to any actions we can take without
violating what we understand to be someone else's rights.

If you have less than the average, your ethical position in this context is
simpler. Obviously you should seek to earn more, should help others to earn
more, should demand an end to your exploitation and marginalization, and
should acquire the means of increasing your productivity and of benefiting
directly from those increases. If we who are accustomed to more can assist
you, we should be bound to help in any way good conscience allows us.

Richard Duffee 2003