Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice and Economic Inequality

A lot of people have been talking about economic inequality and Rawls (Krugman, Yglesias, Karl Smith). Krugman: “My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. And I believe that this vision leads, in practice, to something like the kind of society Western democracies have constructed since World War II — societies in which the hard-working, talented and/or lucky can get rich, but in which some of their wealth is taxed away to pay for a social safety net, because you could have been one of those who strikes out.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.  I want to draw attention to this excellent post by Will Davies of the blog potlatch about re-orientating our sense of fairness away from Rawls towards Michael Walzer. Davies has a longer discussion about a conservative Rawlsian position emerging which takes existing inequalities as given and then decide how to make them fair enough to be just.  Rawls without the original position.  Given that we are going to defund higher education in this country, how can we do it in a way that is fair or that people would be indifferent?  Etc.

Davies thinks this is going to be a dead-end and wants us to consider that we need more non-economic forms of inequality:

Firstly, the fairness brigade might want to put down their John Rawls, and pick up Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice. This means dropping hallowed metaphors of ‘level playing fields’ and equality of opportunity (which don’t seem to be having much effect in the first place), and considering how different sociological forms of inequality do or do not influence one another. Walzer’s argument, very simply, is that there are multiple spheres of inequality in any society. The task is not to erradicate them, but to ensure that none trumps or determines all of the others. So, for example, political contests cannot become dictated by economic contests (which is where the US most conspicuously fails), or vice versa.

When looking at British and American neo-liberalism, the question is whether each society has robust enough non-economic forms of inequality to withstand the unleashing of capitalist relations of domination into more and more spheres of society. To put this another way, resistance to capital in the social, cultural and political spheres is dependent on non-capitalist elites and non-capitalist forms of competition, or alternatively aristocracy of some kind.

I think this is a really interesting approach. Walzer’s definition from his book is “No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x” (20).   That one is successful in the economic realm shouldn’t allow them to be successful in the political realm through their economic success. Inequality in one sphere shouldn’t be able to dominate other spheres – dignity, family, life, health, education, etc.

The contrapositive of Walzer’s definition is what interests me, which would roughly be nobody should be precluded a social good y because on their lack of possession of an unrelated good x.  Inequality in education access, health care, life expectancy, quality of jobs are intrinsically linked to inequality in wealth and income with our poor levels of economic mobility in this country.  Fairness and equality in our court and criminal justice system are largely a function of wealth.  This economic stratification creates larger rigidities and barriers – some by accident, some by design – to further mobility and equality of opportunities in non-economic spheres.   In this sense it can address control and power by the elite in a way that Rawls doesn’t, and in a way that we could use right now.

This is something I’ll be giving more thought to in 2011.  Any thoughts out there on this?

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11 Responses to Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice and Economic Inequality

  1. arbitrista says:

    To risk sounding Marxian, I think that as a practical historical matter the group that controls economic power tends to win control of every other sector of the society as well. I am also very wary of any theory that institutionalizes inequality in ANY sphere.

  2. Frank says:

    Yes, bring back Walzer! There is a nice collection of appreciations, applications, and critiques of his thought called “Pluralism, Justice, and Inequality.”

    The problem with much of Rawls is that maximin policies can be used to justify some very retrograde outcomes. If a given policy gives an extra penny to the bottom 10%, an extra billion to the top 1%, and takes that from the middle, it can be hard for a Rawlsian to attack it as a violation of the difference principle (which permits inequality to the extent it improves the position of the least well off in society).

    Walzer’s ideas also help progressives extricate themselves from the dead-end process/substance debates of the 1990s…that is, are we just about creating fair procedures & equal opportunity, or assuring certain outcomes as well? There was an endless, inconclusive debate on this between latter day Kantians, and I think it’s made it harder to just call out obvious injustice (ala Sen in Idea of Justice).

    Finally, Walzer’s anti-commodification position gets at the core injustice occurring today: a plutocracy buying elections, and a complacent middle delegating the truly difficult work to professional warriors and a rightless, “illegal” immigrant class. Rawls critiqued these trends as well, but his windy discussion of campaign finance in Political Liberalism is not as convincing as Walzer’s treatment of the same topic.

  3. Russ says:

    Yet another scam which purports to tame capitalism, when nothing has been more thoroughly proven by history than the totalitarian nature of capitalism.

    It’s very simple. The productive people do all the work, and they perform this work on material which comes from nature. Almost never does any individual add such value out of his own unique genius that he deserves to be significantly richer than the average. Wealth inequality has no rational, moral, or practical basis. On the contrary, a system which enshrines it must be depraved, irrational, and inefficient, since it dooms an ever larger portion of its production to be thrown down the wealth concentration rathole.

    And we know for a fact that trickle-down is a lie. This has been proven beyond any doubt at all.

    So all Walzer is doing is trying to find a more refined form of trickle-down to replace the discredited Rawlsian “difference principle”. In both cases the intent is the same, to provide the basis of corporate liberal ideology. But has any ideology failed more definitively than corporate liberalism?

    It’s time for humanity to finally take responsibility for itself. That means we finally assume our destined full democratic role: Full political and economic democracy. Participatory democracy and economic self-management. We know for a fact that we don’t need “elites”. We know for a fact that elites do nothing but steal and destroy. We know that representative pseudo-democracy is not worthy of us, and has failed completely in its task of maintaining a responsive government and a stable, prosperous economy. All those things have been destroyed forever by the evil of those who concentrate wealth and power. Such concentrations are evil in themselves. They are nothing but weapons in the hands of their holders. These concentrations must be eradicated completely, as they have been proven once and for all to be a clear and present danger to the real economy, to social stability, to democracy, to freedom, and to human dignity itself.

    Without such dignity there can be no civilization. True democracy, in our polities and our economies, is the only path left.

  4. Will Davies says:

    “I am also very wary of any theory that institutionalizes inequality in ANY sphere.”

    This is very difficult to maintain, given that intellectual debate and the public realm (albeit, perhaps, the ‘bourgeois’ public realm) involves the production of inequality, in the sense that certain arguments are expected to trump or persuade other arguments. The notion of a liberal public sphere states that people are equal when they enter it (a bit like Rawls’s original position), but it is taken as read that some individuals possess greater wit, intellect and rhetorical skill than others. It would be absurd to suggest that they should not be permitted to use these; they are not truly equal in a public sphere, but everything except their argument is disregarded.

    Of course the media and the publishing industry are not as accessible to the powerless and the impoverished as they are to political-economic elites, but the response must surely be to weaken the stranglehold of capital over public debate, not to suddenly insist that all perspectives and arguments are equally valid (which is a sort of free market postmodernism). I actually think that Walzer’s philosophy is a far more powerful critique of capital than Rawls’s, as it specifies that the problem with capitalism is one of monopoly power, not one of market exchange as such.

  5. yorksranter says:

    I blogged about this idea in the context of international politics not so long ago – here. The fact that it’s fundamental to strategic thinking of really any kind suggests that it might indeed have broader applicability. It’s not that egalitarianism is opposed to the republic; it’s a precondition of it.

    As the Catalan socialists put it in the post-Franco years: que es socialismo? Garantia de llibertat.

  6. A really great post. I am happy to see that other people are thinking about this and coming up with ideas. I have been ranting for a while about the moral problem of wealth. Not that money itself is evil, but that a significant percentage of the people who get rich are dispossed to use that wealth in other areas. Especially in my view,for political power. They want to protect what they have, and also get more since they never are satisfied. This is now accelerating thanks to the recent supreme court abomination.

  7. Rob says:

    “Resistance to capital in the social, cultural and political spheres is dependent on non-capitalist elites and non-capitalist forms of competition, or alternatively aristocracy of some kind.”

    Sounds like a proposal for other means for evaluating accomplishment other than money, profit, etc. — something like cultural or social capital. But then the danger is that this other thing becomes a mystification, a smokescreen that disguises or further entrenches existing and governing inequality that stems from hard capital. That means justice becomes a matter of making social and cultural capital non-convertible into hard capital, which means reversing capitalism’s tendency to subsume more and more social experience. What is the first step for that? Haven’t read Walzer; does he discuss this?

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  10. Hugh says:

    I see no evidence that William Davies understands either Rawls or Walzer. Neither offer a “mix and match” approach to justice. Walzer places a premium on pluralism, especially that of cultural and ethnic identity — a subject Rawls returned to repeatedly after publishing Theory. Walzer’s claim to fame has been his arguments on just war theory, not his response, such as it is, to Rawls. What is meant by a “more conservative” Rawlsian position? Davies offers nothing even remotely rigorous. He grossly misstates Rawls’s position, setting up a straw man, if he claims that Rawls demands eradication of inequality.

    There is an enormous literature on this by people who actually put some effort into thinking about it. Walzer is one (and he is far from being the best; get him on fairness with respect to Arabs, and Walzer emerges as a first-class bigot). Others (and betters) include Yale economist John Roemer, Nobel laureate Robert Solow, Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, Stanford philosopher Josh Cohen, and the late philosopher G. A. Cohen.

  11. Mark says:

    I think the Walzerian formula – “No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x” (20) – is just advocacy, reasoning backwards from a position the author desires to achieve. Terms like “social good” and phrases like “be distributed” reflect an antecedent perspective that has already defined certain outcomes as just or unjust. What is a “social” good to a non-biased participant? It seems arbitrary or else pre-selected. And “be distributed” embeds a perspective that some systematic or willed-by-the-elite distribution of identifiable goods is occurring, as opposed to a perspective that the distribution at any one moment is a result of at least semi-volitional decisions of millions of adults among multiple alternatives reflecting their assessment of the value of other participants’ talents and services, and is itself in flux. In large part, I think all “inequality” arguments are simply founded on dissatisfaction with one’s fellow citizens’ choices.

    This comment – “Inequality in one sphere shouldn’t be able to dominate other spheres – dignity, family, life, health, education, etc.” – has no meaning to me in that at least the first three items cannot be measured reliably in our lifetime and thus “inequality” is not applicable to them. Inequality is a term that presumes some kind of quantitative measurement and can’t apply, imo, to what is incommensurable. To be more specific about some of those variables, there is much dignity in living a certain way despite not having a lot of money (one might even say a right-living person’s dignity is greater the less money s/he has, and point to truly pious clergy etc); and historically family bonds have often developed and been maintained regardless of the household’s wealth.

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