In contemporary discourse, it is commonplace to believe that equality should be achieved by “levelling the playing field;” a refined version of this position is called luck egalitarianism. Elizabeth Anderson argues that this approach to equality is deeply disrespectful and out of touch with the reality of social movements campaigning for equality. In this essay, we explore both what luck egalitarianism is, and Anderson’s argument for a better interpretation of equality.
Elizabeth Anderson’s Focus Point: What is Equality Anyway?
The idea that equality between people is preferable to inequality is commonplace in contemporary political philosophy. With the exception of right-libertarians such as Robert Nozick, or anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard, most political philosophers argue that justice requires reducing inequality. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the rise of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, economic inequality has also become a focus for political movements, especially the wealth of the richest 1%.
Although there is substantial agreement on the need for more equality, there is less agreement about precisely what this means. In what respect do we want people to be more equal? After all, there are many ways in which we are different from each other. Some people are more beautiful, richer, funnier, taller, or more intelligent than others. Should we aim to make people equal in all of these dimensions? Or should we only aim to equalize in some of these respects, for instance, equalizing only people’s wealth?
Elizabeth Anderson takes up these questions in her 1999 essay “What is the Point of Equality?”. In her groundbreaking essay, Anderson takes aim at a particular interpretation of egalitarianism: luck egalitarianism.
What is Luck Egalitarianism?
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Luck egalitarianism is the view that we ought to compensate people for underserved bad luck (Anderson, 2019, p. 472). We know, for example, that being born with a disability, low intelligence, or a disagreeable character all have substantial impacts on how well our life goes for us. If we cannot walk, for example, we will find it harder to move around the world than if we could walk. In some cases, doing things that other people take for granted, say doing one’s own shopping, may become impossible.
Luck egalitarians argue that we ought to compensate people for these undeserved difficulties, providing people with bad luck with extra resources to help make their lives better, for example, by hiring an assistant to help with shopping.
Luck egalitarianism’s appeal rests on the intuition that no one deserves one’s native endowments (e.g., intelligence, having been born into wealth, or good parents). Consequently, those who have had good fortune cannot claim that they are entitled to all of the rewards they derive from these characteristics. Sure, rich and successful people may have worked hard to generate their wealth, but the materials they were working with are not entirely their own. Taxing some of this wealth to redistribute it to those who have not been so fortunate is thus legitimate.
Importantly, luck egalitarians don’t aim to equalize all forms of bad luck. Most luck egalitarians make a distinction between option luck and brute luck. Option luck “is a matter of how deliberate and calculated gambles turn out – whether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk he or she should have anticipated and might have declined (Dworkin, 2000, p. 73). Brute luck, on the other hand, is “a matter of how risks fall out that are not in that sense deliberate gambles” (Dworkin, 2000, p. 73).
Luck egalitarians do not aim to compensate people for bad option luck. Only bad brute luck generates entitlements to compensation. So, for example, luck egalitarians would be committed to compensating injured war veterans who were drafted into the army (and hence had no choice) as their injury would be a result of bad brute luck. However, they would not be committed to compensating a similarly injured volunteer soldier, as they will have run the risk of injury in battle voluntarily, making it a case of bad option luck.
Once a person has been compensated for their bad brute luck, luck egalitarians argue those who are left worse off through their own choices must bear the costs. Justice, on their view, doesn’t require an unconditional safety net (e.g., a Universal Basic Income) to prevent “their free fall into misery and destitution” (Anderson, 1999, p. 476).
What’s Wrong with Luck Egalitarianism?
In What is the Point of Equality? Anderson argues that luck egalitarianism makes a mockery of the push for greater equality among people. ‘If much recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives,” she muses, “could the results be any more embarrassing for egalitarians?” (Anderson, 2019, p. 471)
Luck egalitarianism, she argues, fails to meet the most basic test any theory of equality must meet: “that its principles express equal respect and concern for all citizens” (Anderson, 2019, p. 472). Luck egalitarianism fails to do so because it implicitly requires those who claim assistance (e.g., the disabled) to portray themselves as inferior to others. Given that the reason people are entitled to payments is their bad brute luck, implementing a system of compensation for back brute luck would require asking people to present evidence of their misfortune, assessing this evidence, and granting people payments to the extent that they are inferior (in relevant ways) to the rest of us.
Anderson argues that such a system would necessarily be deeply disrespectful. To illustrate her case, she asks us to consider the sorts of letters a hypothetical State Equality Board would have to send out to claimants to explain the reasons for compensating them.
Anderson’s Scenario: Receiving a Letter From the State Equality Board
To the disabled, the State Equality Board would send the following letter:
“Your defective native endowments or currently disabilities, alas, make your life less worth living than the lives of normal people. To compensate for this misfortune, we, the able ones, will give you extra resources, enough to make the worth of living your life good enough”
(Anderson, 2019, p. 480)
The letter to the untalented would read:
“Unfortunately, other people don’t value what little you have to offer in the system of production. Your talents are too eager to command much market value. Because of the misfortune that you were born so poorly endowed with talents, we productive ones will make it up to you: we’ll let you share in the bounty of what we have produced with our vastly superior and highly valuable abilities.” (Anderson, 2019, p. 480)
To the ugly and socially awkward, the board would say:
“How sad that you are so repulsive to people around you that no one wants to be your friend or lifetime companion. We won’t make it up to you by being your friend or your marriage partner – we have our own freedom of association to exercise – but you can console yourself in your miserable loneliness by consuming these material goods that we, the beautiful and charming ones, will provide. And who knows? Maybe you won’t be such a loser in love once potential dates see how rich you are.” (Anderson, 2019, p. 480)
Anderson argues it is impossible to maintain self-respect and conceive of oneself as equal to others upon receipt of a letter such as this. It isn’t hard to agree with her on this point. However, is the disrespect necessary? Part of what is so disrespectful about the letters is their condescending tone. Could adopting a dryer, more bureaucratic language soften the blow? It isn’t clear that it would. The letters would still have to give reasons for compensation, and these would inevitably have to make reference to undesirable characteristics the person has.
How Should We Conceive of Equality?
Instead of conceiving of compensating for natural misfortune as the goal of egalitarianism, Anderson argues we ought to aim towards creating a society in which everyone is treated as having equal moral worth. This will require two things. First, it requires the abolition of oppression, hierarchy, exploitation, and domination. Second, it requires striving to create a society in which people can relate to each other as equals. In a society characterized by democratic equality, “no one need bow and scrape before others or represent themselves as inferior to others as a condition of having their claim heard.” (Anderson, 2019, p. 484)
To achieve these goals, we need to ensure that everyone has equal access to basic capabilities, i.e., the ability to do certain basic things. These include moving around the world; adequate nutrition, clothing, and housing; and the ability to participate in the social life of the community.
Importantly for Anderson, we have an obligation to ensure basic capabilities regardless of whether a person’s lack of them is due to bad brute or option luck. All individuals who are below the threshold of capabilities are entitled to resources and accommodations. As support is guaranteed to all, democratic equality, therefore, does not require sending out intrusive letters and does not require individuals to see themselves as inferior.
Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, Goodin, Robert and Pettit, Philip (Eds). Wiley Blackwell (Oxford, 2019).
Dworkin, R., 2000, Sovereign Virtue, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.