Thinking about inequality

One way an article qualifies as “good” in my mind is when it teaches me something, by telling me something helpful I didn’t know, or showing me another way of looking at a thing, or leading me to think about something important I hadn’t previously thought about much. This profile from the New Yorker of Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher who focuses on equality, does all three of those things and more. I won’t summarize it, but this paragraph should intrigue those who might also find it good:

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem. A quadriplegic adult was blocked from civil society if buildings weren’t required to have ramps. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,” Anderson wrote.

I’m pretty confused about social equality and how to go about addressing imbalances. In the abstract my inclinations are conservative, but in practice my heart goes out to anyone suffering in their current circumstances and I want to do anything I can to share their burden. I’ve never been able to reconcile those two impulses, so usually I go with my heart, while using my conservative outlook to temper and deepen my understanding of what constitutes true help in the situation at hand.

I like the sentence I’ve bolded above because it points to an organizing principle that can reconcile my two impulses: rather than working to improve someone’s situation directly, work instead to remove the obstacles to them improving their own situation (which may or may not include accepting your assistance). Obvious enough as a practical matter—it solves the very real, very frustrating problem of the person in question gaming your efforts to help, as well as your guilt about being frustrated—but it seems to have promise as a guide to thinking through nearly any situation where you want to help but aren’t sure what would actually be helpful.

It also has strong echoes of a principle I’ve followed for quite awhile now: focus on doing the right thing, while leaving the outcome to God.

And it points to a way out of the dilemma I got my first glimpse of in the famous quote from Anatole France:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

This is what I guess you would call structural inequality. What distinguishes the rich from the poor here is not a place to sleep or money to spend or bread to eat, it is access to those things. We need to open the doors those folks must walk through to address their needs. But it’s up to them to walk through.


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