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Why We Need Inequality

We might hear “What do we want? Equality? When do we want it? Now!” in the streets at times but, if pressed, few people making such demands want only equality. They want equality because it will make possible something else, maybe justice or liberty. So even the most avid advocate could not honestly answer the title of Eva Brann’s provocative book Is Equality an Absolute Good? in the affirmative. Equality is not an absolute good.

This makes Brann’s confession of her genuine perplexity about the question and her identification as a “true believer and real apostate” noteworthy. The confession, however, is likely rhetorical flourish because, while she spends much of the first half of the book explaining why equality is so important, she is very clear that equality is misguided (and politically dangerous) as an abstraction and it is most operative when understood as equal “enough.” To insist on enough equality (only) is to assume that the presence of a certain amount of equality makes something else possible, palatable, or permissible. These things, for Brann, are freedom and flourishing. That is, equality is a very important intermediary, not absolute, good.

So why start the essay with the statement that she is a “true believer and real apostate” who is confounded by the idea of equality as an absolute good? Rather than indicate that she might find such claims alternatively persuasive and unpersuasive, she invokes religious terminology. For, Brann, the idea of equality being absolute can only be sustained as an abstraction, and efforts to make equality the prime political good have produced dreadful consequences in the real world. A brief comparison of the French and American Revolutions in regard to actual success in establishing equality leads Brann to highlight the danger of operating with an abstraction. The French Revolution, 20th-century totalitarian movements, and claims made by unnamed groups today run this risk. She writes “[c]uring inequality, however, which is in little and large respects pervasive under personal freedom enabled by political liberty, means undertaking or rather attempting to bring about, ‘systemic reform,’ that is, administratively led revolution.” The principle issue with this, for Brann, is that there “is a system,” such as the revolutionary state, which can bring about equality in absolute terms.

It is also important to note that Brann, subtly, rejects libertarian-type ideas that give no regard to politically mediated efforts to reduce inequality, but insists on the value of classical liberalism and “bounded inequality.” Her defense of the importance of equality suggests that reducing inequality is a good thing, but she never defines inequality. She insists on the need for people to have sufficient goods in order to live well, but never explains how this is a matter of reducing inequality (instead of raising baseline conditions) or what sort of inequality (wealth, income, status) should be reduced. The lack of clarity is important because the “ardent equalizers… gripped by an ideological zealotry” that she opposes periodically swell into public squares with signs, screams, and, now, screens. They might not be satisfied with sufficient goods.

Brann sees such demagoguery as inherently abstract and imprudent. How can one make something abstract concrete? How can equality of relations between different people be equalized in time, and for all time? She draws out the abstract notion of absolute equality by highlighting two primary meanings of equality, one mathematical, one moral. The latter is the one to which every school child is exposed. Is it not wrong to treat person A differently from person B? The former is even more elementary. We memorize 2+2=4, despite the ravings of Dostoevsky’s underground man. Equality is therefore a matter of mathematical identity (a standard that even “identical twins” fail to meet) and moral treatment. The tendency to try to immanentize the abstract notion of equality in politics confuses the two.

The distinction between the two meanings is highlighted when Brann defines equality as “essentially quantitative” and inequality as “essentially qualitative.” To verify equality one most have measures and scales. It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that we truck in proxies that we treat as the real thing. Can we not simply compare the income of person A and B to determine inequality? If income is found lacking, could we adjust for purchasing power? Should we add in consumption patterns and the local costs of keeping up with people of whatever surname? More measures can always be added in, a margin of error can be introduced, and, of course, we can speak at the level of the aggregate because we know the limits of comparison. Such machinations seem rather complicated in order to make some claims about, and then policies, with regard to, equality. Measuring the length and weight of woof and warp is not terribly complicated. Trying to figure out how much of one is to be used in relation to another requires judgment, is calculable.

Brann’s book presents a strong classical liberal argument for “inequality as a political and personal good.”

If we think of people, groups, or whatever human category, Brann notes, mathematical identity is impossible and undesirable. This is because we are essentially unquantifiable beings, beings that are beyond measure. As such, equality is, literally, a foreign goal that can only be imposed abstractly. Inequality, however, is a space for distinction, where we express who we are. Human will, “always on the side of freedom, becomes the partisan of inequality: Inequality means latitude in possibility, escape from comparison, release from positive definition—all preconditions of lived freedom.” Building on Aristotle, she writes “the soul being at its own work and doing it well—is way beyond measurement. Happiness indices belong to a litter I think of as idiots’ expertise.” Statisticians may grapple with how to quantify a qualitative category, such as happiness, but Brann’s point is that sufficient equality is a precondition for a will operating freely to pursue its own flourishing. Sufficient equality means that equality is not absolute and, critically, inequality is present.

In the end, the book presents a strong classical liberal argument for “inequality as a political and personal good.” But one could easily ask how much inequality or what sort of mechanisms to reduce inequality are acceptable? Given that the inequality in need of “bounding” is never defined—is it about incomes, status, physical abilities?—and there is little discussion of politics other than brief references to French Revolutionaries and totalitarian communist regimes, the reader has little sense of how conditions of equal “enough” are obtained. The assumption is that an informed citizenry capable of restraining its desires so that all can pursue freedom is fundamental. She rejects ideology and systems. She proudly discusses voting but criticizes, at least some, street politics, which many would say have been important in helping to reduce inequalities of various kinds. This seems an area in need of elaboration.

Similarly, the book does not address constitutions, law, and jurisprudence. One might agree with Aristotle, that fellowship is of greater value to the polis than justice (Nicomachean Ethics VIII, 1). But Brann’s argument does not involve any bonds between fellow members of the polity. Rather she speaks of children cutting cakes (and wanting identical shares) and a child taking violin lessons. If there is flourishing to be done, it seems like it is done solo, with little regard to others. It also seems that it is done without constraints imposed by law. Some could certainly be persuaded that they are equal enough, while some might certainly think otherwise, and personal reflections on the limitations of equality as an absolute good are a weak substitute for law.

Perhaps the most apparent missing element of Brann’s book is why inequality is so vexing for some. Brann’s happy being follows his or her will and takes “very expensive” violin lessons, among other pursuits. Do the political “zealots” that she criticizes want to have sufficient equality so that they can enjoy inequality also? Do they want to enjoy the identical paths of those they see as having more than they? Or do they want to take from those who have that which they do not really want?

Although political rhetoric is often sloppy, street politics deliberately messy, and policy formation strategic but often imprudent, it is likely that the “zealots” make claims and are motivated most by some mix of the first and third questions. Even if they, as leaders, are more likely to hold the third position—take from those who have that which they do not really want—the masses to whom they speak are more likely to prefer some version of the first: sufficient equality so they can enjoy inequality too. The danger, then, seems less the idea of understanding equality as an absolute good but that a group of people can commandeer political rhetoric (and possibly policy) in such a way that it is inspired by and produces a politics that is at odds with the positions of most people in a democratic society.

Much of Brann’s commentary seems to respond to many of the same questions raised in Tocqueville’s portraits in Recollections but without a sense of how what was being observed, troubling that it was, was temporary and ephemeral. There he noted, “[a]s is always the case in riots, the ludicrous vied with the terrifying.” Consistent with Democracy in America, Tocqueville underscored how understanding demands for equality required analysis of popular support, elite motivations for equality, the role played by law, institutions, habits, and associational life. Such a discussion would fill out the case made by Brann and make its relevance to the contemporary reader more evident.

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