Greg Moses
Why Not Equal Incomes?
c 1996
Delivered at SSC for RPA
April, 1996

Back to Misplaced Essays for Dr. Greg Moses

Why Not Equal Incomes: An Inquiry into a Malaise of American Ideology

Once a people is accustomed to masters, it is no longer in a condition to do without them. Rousseau Discourse on Inequality

Egalitarian principles are neither new nor obscure, yet the question is seldom pressed: Why not equal incomes? While equal respect, opportunity, or rights may be widely defended as proper values for liberal theory, equal incomes are just as widely dismissed. Indeed, our most expert, distinguished, and liberal theories of justice often display remarkable rationalizations of inequality of incomes. This problem in theory poses an increasing problem in practice as liberal theories contend for relevance in a world more and more polarized by mal-adjustments of income distribution. In sum, this paper argues that liberal theories of justice give up too much too easily when they quickly discount equal incomes as a valuable regulatory ideal. Rather than continue the trend of assuming that incomes shall be distributed unequally, this paper argues that theorie of justice would do more work and provide better service if the question of income were posed in a more challenging way. The truer part of philosophy is that which struggles more strenuously against lazy habits of myth, and so I think the higher road belongs to theories that persist with the critical question: Why not equal incomes?

In 1938, R. H. Tawney grappled against the brutish tendency toward inequality and suggested new criteria for thought:

Innocent laymen are disposed to believe that these monstrosities [of inequality], though morally repulsive, are economically advantageous, and that, even were they not, the practical difficulties of abolishing them are too great to be overcome. Both opinions, it may be said with some confidence, are mere superstitions, for which no shadow of convincing evidence has as yet been adduced. If the time ever existed when absurdities of the kind could invoke on their side the conclusions of economic science, that time is now over. The burden of proof rests today, not on the critics of the economic and social inequalities examined in the following pages, but on their defenders.(1)(Tawney 1938:11-12.)

When John Rawls released his blockbusting theory of justice in 1971, however, it was clear that the burden of proof had not shifted. It would take the merest conjecture to establish a theory of justice which acquiesced to easy assumptions of inequality:

Thus the parties start with a principle establishing equal liberty for all, including equality of opportunity, as well as an equal distribution of income and wealth. But there is no reason why this acknowledgment should be final. If there are inequalities in the basic structure that work to make everyone better off in comparison with the benchmark of initial equality, why not permit them? The immediate gain which a greater equality might allow can be regarded as intelligently invested in view of its future return. If, for example, these inequalities set up various incentives which succeed in eliciting more productive efforts, a person in the original position may look upon them as necessary to cover the costs of training and to encourage effective performance. One might think that ideally individuals should want to serve one another. But since the parties are assumed not to take an interest in one another's interests, their acceptance of these inequalities is only the acceptance of the relations in which men stand in the circumstances of justice. They have no grounds for complaining of one another's motives. A person in the original position would, therefore, concede the justice of these inequalities. Indeed it would be shortsighted of him not to do so.(2)(Rawls 1971: 151 emphasis added)

With these influential words, Rawls re-asserts a philosophical status quo identical to the dispositions of Tawney's "innocent laymen" and "defenders of inequality." In less than one paragraph, justice slips into inequality, and a theory of justice is founded upon mutual disregard. Nowhere along the way does Rawls' text bother to substantiate the crucial point that inequality is likely to improve collective progress. Nor does the philosopher seem bothered by his rejection of the classical notion that justice, as "virtue entire", is essentially concerned with mutual relations among neighbors3 (Aristotle Ethics:Book V, Ch. 1).

In fairness to Rawls, it may be noted that he gives his best effort to battle those "monstrosities" of inequality which pervade history. In doing so, however, he perhaps gives up the most elegant concepts available--equality and neighborly love. Thus, I repeat, why not revive that deflated heuristic device which is too often discarded and abused, the very question which demands a rigorous accounting from the apologists of inequality, and ask, why not equal incomes? For instance, it would be easy to counter Rawls' assumption that inequality produces incentives. Inequality, we might argue, not only makes some opportunities more desirable, but it also creates among those enjoying the privileged positions an interest in limiting access to those very opportunities.

Medical school, I suppose, is the most obvious case in point. True, if doctors earned equal wages with janitors, there would be no financial incentive to become a doctor; however, if the financial stakes of doctoring weren't so high, perhaps the medical profession would take less interest in limiting opportunities for would-be doctors. Since Rawls did not elaborate his presumptions for inequality, I will not belabor the counterpoint. But I think it is safe to say that many more people would be healers today if the medical profession were inclined to make the most of all the talents now knocking at the door of restricted opportunity. As a heuristic device, the question, "why not equal incomes?" seems a proper companion to justice which should not easily be dismissed. Thus, even a Rawlsian liberal, considering imminent departure from the original position should want to know clearly why, precisely, any initial inequality is to be introduced, especially in light of the many inequalities which have grown worse since 1971.

The charge will be made that the question of equal incomes reduces unfairly the complexity of problems associated with equal citizenship, equal respect, and equal opportunity. Objectors will say that equal incomes cannot be fair in every case and may undermine mutual cooperation. Everyone feels the righteousness of the little red hen who refuses to share her hard-earned bread with a pride of lazy chicks. The chicks have not respected the hen, so what is the point of rewarding their behavior? At last, I will answer, we have a clear answer to the question we pose-- now let's continue to other examples and see how far Mother Goose help us understand the predicament of justice. In the meantime, our heuristic strategy resists the temptation to reason after fairy tales as we confront "monstrosities" of modern inequality.

We have all shared the predicament of the little red hen, and we know what it feels like. In a milieu of labor which is specialized and divided, we must each feel that we are giving things to others who have not helped. The challenge is to see how others, in turn, have provided things that we did not particularly earn. Every time I pick up a book, for instance, I am taking something that I did not help to produce. The public library is a storehouse of bread baked by others for my use. If I use my talents to get rich, how do I repay all those people who nurtured such talent in the first place? Seen in this way, all great contributions to humanity have been underpaid. As we have taken freely, we might learn to give. Not often enough do we see ourselves as the lazy chickens.

The labor theory of value is presumed dead, but it bears directly on the problem of equal income: imagine that all "non-management personnel" have been suddenly beamed up to Mars. Where does that leave the standard of living for those who remain on Earth? As one student replied, "there would be no standard of living." Each day, the foundations of modern wealth are being reconstructed by a vast array of labor, whether skilled or not. If today, the foundations of wealth require a ditch, then the foundations of wealth are laid by today's ditch digger. Another example: you have a heart attack and you call for help. Someone picks up a telephone. The signal passes the lineman as the call is answered by a dispatcher who relays a message to his counterpart at the fire station. Someone drives the ambulance at top speed along an asphalt highway, passing workers who are patching pavement. A janitor sanitizes the operating room just as you are wheeled into position by orderlies who make minimal wage. Indeed, you are thankful for the assistance of the highly-skilled heart specialist as she works to save your life, but neither she nor you would be in this valuable position were it not for a massive community of labor. (And we have already discussed some reasons why the heart specialist enjoys her rareness of developed talent.) Why should your fee not be distributed equally to all?

In 1985, Verba and Orren asked American leaders what they thought of equal income:

The leaders' views about how income is and ought to be distributed are related to their general values about equality. They also have a bearing on the reality of income inequality in America. Though differences in income can be explained by the functional worth or marginal productivity of various occupations, such explanations hardly account for the full range of variation across occupations. Inequality of earnings also reflects what people believe occupations ought to earn. And the beliefs that count the most are the leaders'. As actors in the formation of public policy, they define the limits of the debate over the government's proper function in income redistribution. And in the private sector the leaders play an even more important role. As Jan Pen points out, "the top incomes in business are set by what top executives in business themselves consider right and proper." Business leaders value themselves highly and pay themselves accordingly. That high self-valuation is not shared by other leadership groups. Thus the conflict over fair income, though representative of a larger and more abstract conflict of values, shapes the actual distribution of wealth in American society.4 (Verba and Orren 1985:150 emphasis added)

As Marx once stipulated, the ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class. Notwithstanding some important disagreements between those who represent business, farm, labor, intellectuals, media, Republicans, Democrats, blacks, feminists, and youth, American leaders endorse an inequality ratio of twelve to one (comparing a top exec to an elevator operator).

Among leaders, business leaders are, "most satisfied with the earnings situation in the United States", while feminists are "least satisfied."5 (Verba and Orren 1985:163). "Nevertheless, the fact that each group, however egalitarian, considers a fairly substantial gap acceptable shows that their commitment to income equality is limited."6 (Verba and Orren 1985: 165). Verba and Orren find it "striking" that American leaders, despite wide differences in ideology and occupation, "uphold wide disparities in income as just or somehow desirable."7 (Verba and Orren 1985:165). "The ideal ranking of occupations is strikingly similar to the actual perceived ranking."8 (Verba and Orren 1985:169). In fact, the ideal ranking is half the actual ranking of 26:1.

Verba and Orren speculate that leaders, when arranging ideal incomes for occupations, are actually making inferences, "consistent with the American consensus that income need not be fully equal but should reflect differences in talent and effort"9 (Verba and Orren 1985:159). Individual "merit" is thus signified by one's occupation. In a world of "natural" inequalities, differences in income reflect social beliefs about the "natural" differences between individuals who perform different jobs. Top business executives deserve more income than skilled workers because they are making fuller use of themselves. And this is where the paradox of "American consensus" evades philosophy. If justice is to built upon equal respect among equals, how do we justify differences in income? Ultimately we reserve the most respect for business leaders, because of their "talent and effort." But why should this be so?

The "American consensus" on inequality quickly slips away from shrewd calculations of "efficiency or productivity"; instead, opinions about incomes reflect judgments of moral worth. In the dialectic between labor and executive, our unexamined assumption is this: the executive is a more worthy person than the laborer. A theory of justice which easily acquiesces to unequal outcomes misses an invaluable opportunity to challenge stratified assumptions about moral worthiness. On the other hand, the question, "Why not equal incomes?", asserts that the moral worth of any two citizens is presumed to be equal until proved different. But occupation is not a sufficient criterion for determining the moral worth of individuals. Outlaws, in fact, are often heroes. The question refuses to acquiesce to the undemocratic assumption that whole classes of moral worth may be assigned on the basis of income. If, in any given productive unit, it is more efficient to have fewer managers than workers, then so be it. This does not become, however, an excuse to value the few more than the many.

It is a common habit in the logic of inequality to treat managers as if they did not work. For instance, when it is argued that workers in a telephone factory could not produce sophisticated machinery without engineers, this is not a refutation of the labor theory of value. What the example makes clear is that the engineer's labor is important, too. What the example fails to show is how the engineer's labor is any more productive than the assembler's. Our refreshed dialectic between assembler and engineer would treat them as moral equals. In fact, had there not been generations of assemblers to build upon, modern technology would still be on drawing boards as yet unmade.

Another objection to equal incomes must be met. Under conditions of modern capitalism, large pools of income are needed in order to provide "seed money" for further investment. But this is just where our theory of equal incomes confronts the ideological paradox which converts inequality into efficiency, and then into personal worth. If executive talent is necessary to maximize profit, why should that talent demand unequal treatment, and why should it furthermore treat that profit as personal property? If what we say we want is the most efficient organization, and if we invest in the education of a few citizens in order to produce that efficiency, what gives these "talented tenth" any right to treat the fruits of efficiency as their personal property? Thus, why should we, at any step, choose inequality of income. Those people whose talents best fit the delegation of large sums of money ought to do their work like the rest of us and stop asking us to believe that they are therefore worth more money.

In the end, each of us is a citizen, perhaps a parent, with equal rights to citizenship and equal rights to provide for our children. These rights are severely compromised however when we assume that our moral worth is determined by the division of labor which society finds most efficient. If society needs a garbageman, so be it. If society needs doctors, then doctors should be nurtured. But American democracy stagnates so long as "American consensus" buys into the easy myths of necessity and efficiency as convenient rationalizations for unequal incomes.


In an effort to "rectify" the term equality for fellow political scientists, John Rees brought forward a slim volume on the subject in 1971. With "conscious debt" to R. H. Tawney, Rees sought to rescue equality from its role as, "an ideal or principle; something men aim at or by reference to which they guide their conduct."10 (Rees 1971:11). In Rees' opinion, such a meaning would relegate equality to secondary importance when compared to terms like "power and authority"; because, power and authority are inescapable features of human relations, whereas, equality would be sidelined as a mere "reforming idea", only important when strenuously advocated.11 (Rees 1971: 11).

In his effort to rescue equality from the bench, Rees employs a curious method, by which it is first established that some form of "power and authority" may be inscribed into human affairs. The argument refers to Hume:

that if rules for securing stability of possession are indeed a necessary feature of social life then there must be provision for making, amending, and enforcing these rules and this implies the necessity of some kind of ruling group, if only with limited functions, with the consequent inequality which the existence of such a group surely involves.12 (Rees 1971:26-27)

For Rees, as for Hume, the very ground of human relations requires inequality between governors and governed. Once this inequality is introduced, other inequalities are admitted in turn. The begging question is not answered: why not equal incomes among governors and governed alike? Absolute equality is thus dismissed, not only for being impractical, but also for violating "our ordinary notions of justice."13 (Rees 1971:125). "In other words, to the extent that respect for individuality and the satisfaction of the varying needs of men go against absolute equality so they support a conception of equality which can accommodate them."14 (Rees 1971:125).

Rees calls his leading principle, "conditional equality" for which there is, "a presumption in favor of treating all persons equally", until, as we have seen, some Humean or other reason is proffered to discount equality across the board.15 (Rees 1971:125). Citing Isaiah Berlin and Monroe Beardsley, Rees argues that inequality is often permissible, but should be explained. Having dismissed absolute equality, because it, "does not recommend itself to anyone," Rees now claims to be presuming with Berlin that, "equality needs no reasons, only inequality does so."16 (Rees 1971:125). Now, either equality has presumptive force, or it does not. If equality has presumptive force, then it cannot be lightly dismissed. Once equality is, "dismissed briefly," what force is left to plead for further reasons? Thus, Rees, in turn, rightly judges his principle of conditional equality to be, "too open-ended to convey the substance of what egalitarians are after."17 (Rees 1971:122).

Having inscribed inequality into the necessary conditions of human society, having dismissed absolute equality as silly, and having found little substance to the principle of conditional equality, Rees at last stands his ground upon the principle of, "respect for each man's life, liberty and security"18 (Rees 1971:122). Much like Rawls in the same year, Rees abides by two principles of justice: a principle of equality, and a principle of inequality. Both quickly dismiss equal outcomes, but plead for a rational, reasoned, milieu of inequality. On both sides of the Atlantic, whether from thick book or thin, theory converges in 1971 toward remarks made in 1647 by Colonel Rainborough in the Putney Debates: "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he."19 (Rees 1971:123). Differences between poor and great will be, only ask that the greatest not trample, without reason, on the lowest he.

In his 1974 book, More Equality, sociologist Herbert J. Gans remarked that America was suffering a widespread "mood of malaise"20 (Gans 1974:36):

two decades of American affluence have only reinforced the historic urge of Americans to improve themselves, and the malaise has come about because of the realization that improvement is no longer as easy as it once was. Their will for improvement remains firm, however, and whether America declines or falls apart depends in large part on what kinds of improvements can be made in the years to come, and more specifically, whether all of the various pressures for improvement can be reconciled, which will in turn require some movement toward a more egalitarian society.21 (Gans 1974: 37)

Gans then defined three kinds of equality which might be used to measure improvement: opportunity, treatment, and result. Since American experience has made it difficult to believe that equality is sufficiently served by opportunity or treatment, Gans suggested that, "the only truly egalitarian principle is equality of results, which may require unequal opportunity or treatment for the initially disadvantaged so that they eventually wind up equal in resources or rights"22 (Gans 1974:64-65).

Yet Gans is like other theorists when it comes to a vision of equal results: "if all resources were equalized, everyone would be uniform on all counts"23 (Gans 1974:65). Thus, the call for equal outcomes is viewed as an urge to erase human differences. Power and income may be equalized without erasing differences among people, but:

A completely egalitarian strikes me as so utopian as to be beyond policy-oriented discussion. If all incomes were equal, it is doubtful that the most unpleasant and taxing jobs would be filled, and if all power were equalized, it is doubtful that any decisions could be made and any public activities could proceed. Moreover, such a society would need to be heavily regimented to prevent new inequalities from arising, and it would have to be static, straining toward a totally egalitarian end-state above all else. The major defect of complete equality is he defect of all single-value conceptions: if equality is the all-encompassing goal, then all other goals, regardless of their desirability or necessity, become lower in priority, and no society can function by pursuing one goal above all others.24 (Gans 1974:66-67)

Thus, Gans pleads not for absolute equality, but more equality: "What degree of income equality is compatible with the division of labor, with filling unpleasant jobs,and with economic efficiency in general?"25 (Gans 1974:67). With Rees, we find Gans advocating a minimum income for the "lowest he." For Gans, minimum income should be fixed at 60 per cent of median, a figure which is determined by studying public opinion26 (Gans 1974:68). Furthermore, Gans entertains an income ceiling, based on, "Rawl's well-argued principle" and some yet-to-be-conducted economic study.27 (Gans 1974:68).

In sum, Gans is sure that the poorest should be valued at less than median income, but he is hesitant to fix any ceiling on the value of the rich--better to have some millionaires rather than none. What Gans concludes is that some form of income redistribution may be, someday, economically and politically viable. With Rawls and Rees, like Tawney before them, Gans is concerned to find some rational stance with which to mitigate the monstrous inequalities of modern society. Gans situates his own work within a malaise of cultural crisis, seeking hope against cynicism. But as Gans admits, the quest for more equality has "feasibility" problems which are not overcome by defensive theories: "the fears of economic decline which income redistribution is already evoking suggest that even a moderate scheme . . . would arouse considerable political opposition."28 (Gans 1974:169).

Undaunted by the grim reaper of public fear, Alvin L. Schorr in 1977 boldly collected opinions of three economists and three social workers, published under the title, Jubilee for Our Times: A Practical Proposal for Income Equality. Unabashedly presented as an elaboration of Tawney's work, Schorr and company did their best to put a tilt in the "gyroscope stability" of income distribution in America.29 (Schorr 1977:ix-x). Their "pluralistic" approach yielded a short list of reforms that would redistribute about $60 billion dollars toward the poorest Americans, leaving the bottom twenty percent of the population with ten percent of the nation's wealth: "The central point is that redistribution can be achieved in consonance with the way income is put together in the United States."30 (Schorr 1977:282). The battles for such a plan, however, would have to be fought on a continual basis, with each new session of Congress, "fiscal year by fiscal year":

Those who are impatient for a single political act that may bring the nation to social grace do not grasp that greed has more staying power. To be sure, the problem of a pluralistic strategy lies in its very complexity and in the variety of expertise it requires. Those who are wealthier or are advocates of the wealthy have so far seemed to have more patience for the task.31 (Schorr 1977:282)

Against complacent assumptions that existing programs have vast redistributive effects, the authors report some sobering findings. For instance, "tax collection does not appear to be very redistributive"32 (Schorr 1977:267). Furthermore, the strategy of allocating social benefits by means of "income testing" has the surprising result of rationing, "at the expense of the poorest people."33 (Schorr 1977:280).

In concluding remarks, Schorr assures us that, "distributional problems remain acute" and "should not be underestimated."34 (Schorr 1977:286). With Gans, we find Schorr pondering a kind of malaise that has crept into national life, "with a powerful sense that reform has been tried and failed."35 (Schorr 1977:287):

In other words, our technologies and bureaucracies may now be so diffuse and, in each of their parts, rigid that in most cases participatory processes will not reach the central issue of distribution of resources. If that is so, injustice can persist and increase to a point that endangers the political system we know and value. Futurists have written scenarios that explain how our system will be transformed without revolution or even visible change of scenery and symbols. The issue is acute because maldistribution and the sense of powerlessness are, quite naturally, accompanied by a loss of community. That is the way a society goes down, not in defeat but in recrimination.36 (Schorr 1977:287)

With these grim prospects in mind, Schorr finds hope in the fact that, because the change required is "modest" and in the interest of the "privileged", disaster may be averted: "Down the road, if we take it, we can approach the eradication of poverty; in the process we can gain community. The change would be heard in our land like the blast of trumpets."37 (Schorr 1977:287).

Schorr's project makes explicit reference to the legend of the jubilee announced in Leviticus 25, when all debts shall be forgiven and slaves set free. Indeed, Schorr speaks a vision of community restored when citizens work together for equality. Nevertheless, in his effort to provide practical, "pluralistic" strategies for melioration, Schorr speaks shrewdly of the "enlightened interests" of elites who may want to avert chaos or revolution. In fact, Schorr is uneasy with equality, and shares the common-sense misgivings that have characterized all our theories above. "Few would seek literal equality. The shape of such a society would be difficult to imagine and, in any event, unlikely of achievement"38 (Schorr 1977:19). Moreover, Schorr skims over the Rawlsian presumption for inequality as if it were not there:

The contemporary counterargument [to Rawlsian equality] relies on the need of an industrial society for hierarchy. In economists' terms, social justice is pitted against efficiency, that is against the capacity of greed and the private market to provide the most production when least interfered with. "For over a century [this presumption] has survived on theoretical speculation rather than sound empirical evidence."39 (Schorr 1977:12-13)

But we have seen that Rawlsian equality needs no counterargument, since hierarchical inequality is already built into the concept on the basis of Rawls' own theoretical speculation.

In 1982, Roberts and Brintnall published an historical survey entitled, Reinventing Inequality. As they came into view of our contemporary predicament, the authors stressed terms of "unbalance" and "negative reciprocity":

It has long been argued by the apologists for free market capitalism that, in the long run, there is an equilibrium or balance in the marketplace. Supply creates its own demand; trade benefits all equally; capital and labor both benefit by technological innovation. The relationship between the poor nations of the world and the rich belie this idea completely.

If there is one word to characterize the relationship between the centers of capital and the poorer peripheral areas, it is distortion.40 (Roberts and Brintnall 1982:308)

This milieu is characterized by "negative reciprocity" or the principle of exchange which says, give as little, but get as much as possible41 (Roberts and Brintnall 1982:321). If Rawlsian inequality would not condone such a principle, the naivety of Rawlsian liberalism is nevertheless poorly equipped to confront these well-documented features of capitalism. In fact, the Rawlsian principle of inequality might be tendered as an example of one more "disposable ideology" which has been influential, and thus very useful, in discounting equality as a value among "enlightened" elites.


In the section above, we have seen how inequality, as a principle of justice, pervades our most compassionate intellectual circles. Thus, the ideal of equality has become so thin as to be unimaginable, undesirable, and not a little embarrassing in the shrewd, all too shrewd, world of public philosophy. Time and again, theoretical shrewdness anticipates the parameters of contemporary American imagination and defers to the fear of equality, but these are poor apologies for philosophy in America.

Earlier, we saw how Rees adopted a Humean rationale for inequality which in 1971 served much the same critical function as Rawlsian consent. What I will now show is that Rees too quickly adopted the Humean stance as an interpretation of a Platonic fable. If we spend a little more time on the fable of Hermes, as introduced in Plato's Protagoras, we may gather nerve to re-assert the value of equality. In fact, the fable of Hermes, as recounted by Protagoras, reminds us that justice is a critical human need--"a thing more precious than many pieces of gold."42 (Republic 336). If we have not lately been inclined to take our lessons from fables of the gods, we have nevertheless wanted to meliorate human disarray by introducing principles of justice and mutual respect.

In Plato's Protagoras, we find our hero Socrates in an especially cantankerous mood as he confronts the Sophist Protagoras. What seems to bother Socrates most is that Protagoras is haughty enough to charge money for teaching virtue. As Socrates implores the Sophist to prove that virtue can indeed be taught, Protagoras settles into a fable about the first days of creation, when humans were devoured by wild beasts:

They sought therefore to save themselves by coming together and founding fortified cities, but when they gathered in communities they injured one another for want of political skill, and so scattered again and continued to be devoured. Zeus therefore, fearing the total destruction of our race, sent Hermes to impart to men the qualities of respect for each other and a sense of justice, so as to bring order into our cities and create a bond of friendship and union.43 (Protagoras 322)

What is clearly indicated by this fable is that necessity and efficiency do not suffice to make community. Even under the most adverse conditions, where self-interested survival has supplied grave motives for common life, community is nevertheless impossible without mutual respect. Only in the company of respect and friendship do we find the introduction of justice, and no crisis of self-interest is going to suffice to get us out of this original predicament.

Zeus is adamant about the twin principles of justice and respect for others, telling Hermes, "you must lay it down as my law that if anyone is incapable of acquiring his share of these two virtues he shall be put to death as a plague to the city."44 (Protagoras 322). Such is the condition which allows humans to struggle out of their original position of mutual strife. Either they find it in their hearts to respect each other, or they perish.

In the Republic, we again find our hero Socrates in dispute with a Sophist who will have payment for being an expert on justice. The hot-tempered Thrasymachus stipulates that justice is neither duty, advantage, profit, nor gain, but rather, "the interest of the stronger."45 (Republic 336, 338). Socrates agrees that justice is to found in an interest of some sort, perhaps in the perfection of a special art, but, "no science or art enjoins the interest of the stronger or superior, but only the interest of the subject and weaker":

Then, I said, Thrasymachus, there is no one in any rule who, in so far as he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is for his own interest, but always what is for the interest of his subject or suitable to his art, and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.46 (Republic 342)

Our hero thus provokes Thrasymachus into a diatribe on some common sense notions of justice: "that the just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust."47 (Republic 343). This is especially true, "of injustice on a large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is more apparent":

But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens but by all who hear of his having achieved the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man's own profit and interest.48 (Republic 344)

To which Socrates replies, "Is the attempt to determine the way of man's life so small a matter in your eyes--to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage?"49 (Republic 344).

Classic themes of justice have not been overcome during the millennia since Socrates debated the Sophist Thrasymachus. Our contemporary thinkers still wrestle with the fear that justice may weaken the strong; therefore, justice must be recast that the strong may thrive. Indeed, these are opinions still worth their weight in the coin of the realm. Now Socrates has a view of justice which relates to "the art of pay."50 (Republic 346). As an art, justice should be concerned to render a service, but since the service to be rendered is for the benefit of others, the arts of justice would have to be compensated. Furthermore, "good men" would not be found eager to take such positions and would have to be coerced. Under such circumstances, Socrates admits that, "to avoid office would be as much an object of contention as to obtain office is at present"51 (Republic 347).

The vision of Socrates is imaginable, and might even be embraced as a goal. The result would neither be boring nor stifling. The only requirement would be that good people take seriously their responsibility as caretakers of public good, not for their own profit, but for the health of others. If inequality is implied in this relationship between governor and governed, it is the inordinate difficulty of the task of the governor as compared to the daily activities of the governed. And yet, the governor would find her compensation no greater than if she were some other working person with a service to perform. As a social ethic, survival of the fittest would be replaced by promotion of the just. Even if this is not the world we live in, it is nevertheless imaginable and desirable.

No doubt the just ruler would seem to be inspired by Hermes, that trickster and thief who does the bidding of Zeus. Under the gaze of such a judge, no personal fortune would be safe from appropriation for the common interest. Mutual respect among citizens would conceivably result in the kind of justice which would rob the rich and give to the poor. But mutual respect among citizens might also make it easier to recognize how the wealth of the few is indeed the work of many and thus a public good. The wealthy will resist this concept; the poor will fear the worst.

In the absence of a society filled with good people, imbued with mutual respect, injustice seems the best justice that money can buy. As Thrasymachus says, opinion favors the justice of wealth and power. Better to work for thieves than have thieves work for us. As slaves to injustice, we more gladly submit our labor now, rather than later risk our gold. In so doing, we indeed submit our labor now. Perhaps we also stand willing to die protecting the right to gold only rarely our own. Thus, in the topsy turvy world of contemporary theory, equality is inequality, justice is injustice. Nothing else is imaginable, desirable, or rational. And yet, there would be wisdom in pressing the question, "Why not equal incomes?"


In conclusion, a word about the alleged homogeneity of equal incomes. In 1991, Aaron Wildavsky published his alarmed criticism of egalitarian ideals. In The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism, Wildavsky has a refreshing view of contemporary America, because he sees the forces of equality circling for victory at every turn. "The signs all point, we insist, toward a rise in egalitarian culture"52 (Wildavsky 1991:67). Against this predicament, from which there appears to be no escape, Wildavsky offers a clarion call for inequality:

There is no moral claim to equality of condition. Inequality is also variety. The homogeneous has no claim on our consciences. There is nothing wrong with disparities unless they are permanent and cumulative. So long as people are able to live decently and try to better themselves, disparities are a source of innovation and opportunity, not of condemnation.

We see what has happened: The condition of the worst off is being used to drive society as a whole in the direction of equality of condition. This, I maintain, is morally undesirable.53 (Wildavsky 1991:231-32)

But there is no reason to conflate homogeneity with equal income. Surely, the call for equal income urges us toward a classless society where disparities will be neither "permanent" nor "cumulative." But this does not imply that the people of such a society would be lacking in many diverse qualities or characters. True, a society with equalized incomes would not exhibit the vast differences in housing conditions now apparent as one drives between neighborhoods of poverty to subdivisions of privilege. But one would hardly expect to find that equalized incomes would equalize the indomitable array of talents to be found in any neighborhood whatsoever. If indeed, the radical egalitarians are on the rise, it is justice that concerns us, not conformity.

Wildavsky wonders why equality should be such a hot topic today, since the American pattern of distribution, "has been stable and considerably unequal for 200 years"54 (Wildavsky 1991: 64). Perhaps it is because logic has advanced to the point where a distinction can be made between human difference and income equality. And perhaps it is because a recognition has grown that equality cannot be rescued from its status as an ideal principle which has value only when it is vigorously articulated from one citizen to the next. Wildavsky is on to something when he declares, "Egalitarians exist not to be satisfied"55 (Wildavsky 1991:111 emphasis in the original). Dissatisfaction is good evidence that a kind of difference is thriving among egalitarians. For it is we who press the question, "Why not equal incomes?"


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