Equality and equity naked capitalism

Yves is here. I must say that I enjoy watching Matt Breinig patiently and clearly deal with issues of terminology and usage, as they regularly include hidden assumptions that are not easily deciphered in routine discussions. The problem with terms like fairness and equality is that they have become overly plastic.

Matt Brunig. Originally posted on his website

Over the past decade or so, a convoluted idea that originated in the nonprofit sector has slowly made its way into liberal discourse in general. According to this idea, “equality” is bad or inadequate, and instead we need something called “fairness”.

Bernie Sanders was asked to explain the difference between the two in real time this weekend and he really didn’t know what to say.

This exchange fired up both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are on fire because they associate the word “capital” with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) trainings that have taken hold in the corporate sector, despite being pretty dumb. Liberals are on fire because they’ve embraced the word so vigorously and think it reflects badly on Sanders that he doesn’t have a ready story to tell about it.

In the exchange meta-discourse, the debate has centered on whether it is good or bad for politicians to use the linguistic innovations of the non-profit or academic sectors, which at the moment is a fairly well-rehearsed affair, in which one side says that language is very important for oppressed peoples, and the other side says it’s not the key to them and alienates others.

But this reasoning lacks a factual answer to the question posed to Sanders: How does justice differ from equality?

In my early 20s, I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about egalitarian political philosophy, both on the left and liberal. And so, when soon after that people started to say that they were against “equality” but for “fairness”, I was well placed to integrate this statement into my understanding of the existing egalitarian philosophy. And then it was clear, as it is now, that “justice” is used to mean “the equality of the right unit of equality.”

To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the seminal philosophical text of the “stock revolution,” which is really just a two-panel cartoon meme.

There is an equal distribution of boxes in the “equality” panel. There is an equal distribution of lines of sight on the equity panel. So equality in both cases. To the extent that you should learn something from the panel, it is that in the case of watching a baseball game, the correct unit of equality is lines of sight, not boxes.

Sometimes people try to reduce this move to just a linguistically new way of advocating equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. Proponents of “justice” consistently reject this simplification, and as far as I can tell, these proponents are indeed correct in rejecting it. “Fairness” is not used to promote any particular unit of equality – be it outcomes, opportunities, crates, lines of sight, luck-adjusted outcomes, primary goods, income, wealth, or abilities – instead, it’s a word you say every time. when you object. to the unit of equality that someone else is using, regardless of what your preferred alternative unit of equality, if any, is.

A good example of this that I saw recently was when, back in the days of COVID, the USPS announced that it would mail four COVID tests to every household. In a hugely popular tweet, a prominent “justice” advocate said it was the perfect example to illustrate why “equality” is so inferior to “equality”. They clarified that this program was “equal” because the same number of COVID tests were sent to each family, but “unfair” because different families had different numbers of people.

Of course, in more natural language where we don’t switch between two words, you would say using just “equality” that the USPS program was equal per household, but unequal per person, and that in the case of dissemination of diagnostic tests, per person would be more appropriate.

The fact that whether something is considered “equal” or not depends on what unit you use to measure equality is a pretty introductory concept in egalitarian thought. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy spends a huge chunk of article on egalitarianism with a detailed description of this issue. In egalitarian thought, this is usually referred to as the “equality of what” question, which is also the name of the famous Amartya Sen. lecture on the 1979 issue. In the lecture, Sen rejects “utility” and Rawls’ “primary goods” in favor of his own “basic ability” as the best unit of equality.

If the proponents of “justice” had a specific unit of equality that they consistently promoted, then it would be fairly easy to explain what it is. You would just say “fairness means equality X” as opposed to other units of equality like senian abilities, Rawls primary goods, Dvorkin resources, etc.

But proponents of “equality” instead use the word to mean “equality of the proper unit of equality”, where the “proper unit of equality” changes speaker for speaker and case for case, and sometimes is not actually defined at all. And given that reality, it’s really hard to answer the question “how is justice different from equality” when asked in general, as Maher did.

In conclusion, there is one thing that annoys me a little about the meta-discourse of this exchange, which focuses on the value of academic language. All in all, it’s a worthwhile conversation, but it’s actually a bit backwards in this case. The academic discourse on egalitarianism is both interesting and clear in addressing the issue of “equality of what”. What we have with “fairness” is that non-academics who are clearly unfamiliar with the relevant academic discourse offer an unfinished and poorly theorized version of it.

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