Egalitarianism: Fair and Equal? New Thinking on Egalitarianism

By Whaples, Robert M. | Independent Review, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Egalitarianism: Fair and Equal? New Thinking on Egalitarianism


Whaples, Robert M., Independent Review


Inequality is an exceptionally beautiful thing. Or maybe it's a terribly ugly thing. To most people, it depends on what is unequal and why it is unequal. Love it or loathe it, egalitarian sentiments and concerns about inequality are clearly on the rise in both politics and the academy.

Because of this renewed interest, Christopher Coyne, Michael Munger, and I (the coeditors of The Independent Review) issued a challenge last year, inviting authors to submit papers to explore, reassess, and critique the very concept of egalitarianism--relating it to ongoing debates in philosophy, politics, history, law, and economics--and promising a reward of $10,000 (generously contributed by an anonymous donor) for the best essay. We received twenty-seven submissions. All of them have something original, thoughtful, and important to say about egalitarianism, so selecting only ten for inclusion in this symposium was no easy task--especially because of the wide range of approaches to the subject. Selecting the best of them was even more challenging, and some might have urged us to make things easy on ourselves or be "fair" by dividing the prize equally among the top few papers and giving merit badges to all the participants. Instead, we are thrilled to announce that the winner of the Independent Excellence Prize is Adam Martin for his incisive analysis "The New Egalitarianism."

Martin argues that modern egalitarianism rejects older thinking on the subject. Consider racism (or sexism or any type of antiotherism). Martin argues that the old definition of racism was "individual conduct that is motivated by either (a) antipathy to other races or (b) a belief that those races are inferior." However, the New Egalitarians' definition, which has grown to dominate thinking in many parts of academia, is that racism equals "socially constructed, 'invisible systems conferring racial dominance"' (quoting McIntosh 1989, 4). Martin points out that accurately diagnosing the second type of racism requires social scientific understanding of how social structures operate and sufficient historical knowledge to judge how social structures have disadvantaged certain groups. Thus, it requires an immense amount of knowledge and cannot be judged by laypeople, unlike the first kind of racism. It requires rule by experts. Second, he argues, these rent-seeking experts practice an intellectual style characterized by attempts to evade critical scrutiny, using vague and indeterminate terms and--more importantly--simply denying many of their critics standing to weigh in on the subject because, they argue, these critics are privileged by the system. Countering this obscurantism makes it especially hard for some to question the New Egalitarians' arguments--which increases their appeal in some quarters as they battle to make this new way of thinking the norm.

How did we get to this point, and where are we headed? James Harrigan and Ryan Yonk answer these questions with a conceptual and historical roadmap in "From Equality and the Rule of Law to the Collapse of Egalitarianism." They argue that in the early history of the United States, a direct line can be drawn from belief in human equality to the rule of law to an emergent regime based on negative rights as exemplified in Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. That line held for a century or so, but then the nation drifted to a regime predicated on positive rights and a corresponding large, powerful, redistributionist government exemplified by the ideas of the Progressives and Franklin Roosevelt. They argue that this shift in the American electorate's attitudes is playing out in an unsustainable manner. Policy makers are largely unconcerned with recapturing the original conception of equality because there is little profit to them in telling the American public what it cannot have. Redistributive policies are extremely well supported by many voters, so policy makers roll back such policies at their own electoral peril. …

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