TCS Daily

The Absurdity of Egalitarianism

By John Kekes - April 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Egalitarians believe that inequality is unjust and justice requires a society to move steadily toward greater equality. This is the aim and the justification of proportional taxation, affirmative action, equal opportunity programs, and of the whole panoply of anti-poverty policies that bring us ever closer to the socialist dream of a welfare state. These policies cost money. The egalitarian approach to getting it is to tax those who have more in order to benefit those who have less. The absurdity of this is that egalitarians suppose that justice requires ignoring whether people deserve what they have and whether they are responsible for what they lack. They suppose it just to ignore the requirements of justice.

Here is a consequence of egalitarianism. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, men's life expectancy is on the average about 7 years less than women's. There is thus an inequality between men and women. If egalitarians mean it when they say that "it would be a better state of affairs if everyone enjoyed the same level of social and economic benefits," or that "how could it not be an evil that some people's prospects at birth are radically inferior to others," then they must find the inequality between the life expectancy of men and women unjust. As they say, "those who have been favored by nature ... may gain from their good fortune only in terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out."

Egalitarians, thus must see it as a requirement of justice to equalize the life expectancy of men and women. This can be done, for instance, by men having more and better health care than women; by employing fewer men and more women in stressful or hazardous jobs; and by men having shorter work days and longer vacations than women. Such policies will not diminish productivity if loss in man-hours is compensated for by gain in woman-hours.

Yet a further policy follows from the realization that since men have shorter lives than women, they are less likely to benefit after retirement from Social Security and Medicare. As things are, in their present inegalitarian state, men and women are required to contribute an equal percentage of their earnings to Social Security and Medicare. This is clearly unjust from the egalitarian point of view: Why should men be required to subsidize the health and wealth of women? The policy this suggests is to decrease the levy on men, or increase it on women, or possibly do both at once. There is thus much that egalitarian policies could do to reduce the unjust inequality in the life expectancy of men and women.

However much that is, it will affect only future generations. There remains the question of how to compensate the present generation of men for the injustice of having shorter lives than women. No compensation can undo the damage, but it may make it easier to bear. The obvious policy is to set up preferential treatment programs designed to provide for men at least some of the benefits they would have enjoyed had their life expectancy been equal to women's. There is a lot of pleasure that could be had in those 7 years that men are not going to have. And since those years would have come at the end of their lives, when they are more likely to know their minds, their loss affects not only the quantity but also the quality of their not-to-be-had pleasures. One efficient way of compensating them for their loss is to set up government sponsored pleasure centers in which men may spend the hours and days gained from having shorter working days and longer vacations.

Can These Absurdities Be Avoided?

These absurd policies follow from egalitarianism, and their absurdity casts doubt on the beliefs from which they follow. This ought to lead to the suspicion that the policies more usually associated with egalitarianism, namely anti-poverty programs, various welfare legislations, proportional taxation, the preferential treatment of minorities and women, and so forth, suffer from analogous absurdity. One may actually come to suspect that the familiar egalitarian policies do not appear absurd only because they are made familiar by endlessly repeated mind-numbing rhetoric that disguise the lack of reasons for them.

Can egalitarians avoid these absurdities? They might claim that there is a significant difference between the unequal life expectancy of men and women, and the inequality of rich and poor, whites and blacks, or men and women in respects other than life expectancy. The difference, egalitarians might say, is that the poor, blacks, and women are unequal as a result of injustice, such as exploitation, discrimination, prejudice, and so forth, while this is not true of the life expectancy of men.

A moment of thought shows, however, that this claim is untenable. The group of men includes blacks and the poor who, according to egalitarians, have suffered from injustice in the past. And blacks and women include high achievers, middle and upper class people, people with considerable wealth, as well as recent immigrants who came to this country voluntarily and who could not have suffered from past injustice here. It is but the crudest prejudice to think of men as Archie Bunkers, of women as great talents sentenced to housewifery, and of blacks as ghetto dwellers doomed by injustice to a life of poverty, crime, and addiction. Many men have been victims of injustice, and many women and blacks have not suffered from it.

It will be said against this that there still is a difference because the poor, blacks, and women are more likely to have been victims of injustice than men. Suppose this is true. What justice requires then, according to egalitarians, is to redistribute resources to them and to compensate them for their loss. But these policies will be just only if they benefit victims of injustice, and the victims cannot be identified simply as poor, blacks, or women because they, as individuals, may not have suffered any injustice. Moreover, those members of these groups who do lack resources may do so, not because of injustice, but because of bad luck, personal defects, or having taken risks and lost. Overcoming injustice requires, therefore, a much more precise identification of the victims than merely membership in such amorphous groups as those of women, blacks or the poor. This more precise identification requires asking and answering the question of why specific individuals are in a position of inequality.

Answering it, however, must include consideration of the possibility that people may cause or contribute to their own misfortune and that it is their lack of merit, effort, or responsibility, not injustice, that explains their position. Egalitarians, however, ignore this possibility. According to them, the mere fact of inequality is sufficient to warrant redistribution and compensation. They say, for instance, that "a distribution of wealth that dooms some citizens to a less fulfilling life than others, no matter what choices they make, is unacceptable, and the neglect of equality in contemporary politics is therefore shameful." Regardless whether egalitarians are right about this, they face a dilemma. If the policies of redistribution and compensation do take into account the degree to which people are responsible for being in a position of inequality, then the justification of these policies must go beyond what egalitarians can provide. For the justification must involve consideration of the choices people make, as well as their merit, effort, responsibility. To the extent to which this is done, the justification ceases to be egalitarian.

If, on the other hand, the policies of redistribution and compensation do not take into account the responsibility people have for their inequality, then there is no difference between the inequality of men and women in respect to life expectancy, and the poor, blacks, and women who are unequal in other respects. Consistent egalitarian policies would then have to aim to overcome all inequalities, and that is just what produces the absurd policies noted above.

Egalitarians may try to avoid absurdity in another way. They may say, "how could it not be an evil that some people's prospects at birth are radically inferior to others?" The expectation is that the question will be regarded as rhetorical, since the answer to it will be obvious, at least to right-minded people. This expectation, however, is mistaken. That some people's prospects at birth are radically inferior to others is a statistical necessity. Being a necessity, it holds in all societies, even in a socialist heaven. Given any population and any basis of ranking the prospects of individuals in the population, some will rank higher and others lower. Those who rank lowest will have prospects radically inferior to those who rank highest. Complaining about this unavoidable fact of life is as reasonable as lamenting differences in height or weight. To call this statistical necessity evil is a sentimental cheapening of the most serious condemnation language affords. And the refusal to call it evil shows respect for facts rather than insensitivity.

A Nagging Doubt

Suppose that egalitarianism is seen for what it is: an absurd attempt to deny in the name of justice that people should be held responsible for their actions and treated as they deserve based on their merits or demerits. A nagging doubt remains. It is undeniable that there are in our society innocent victims of misfortune and injustice. Their inequality is not their fault, they are not responsible for it, and they do not deserve to be in a position of inequality. The emotional appeal of egalitarianism is that it recognizes the plight of these people and proposes ways of helping them. Counting on the compassion of decent people, egalitarians then charge their society with injustice for ignoring the suffering of innocent victims.

There are several things that need to be said in response to this frequently heard charge. First, anyone committed to justice will want people to have what they deserve and not to have what they do not deserve. Innocent victims do not deserve to suffer, yet they do. A decent society should do what it can to alleviate their suffering. But this has nothing to do with equality or egalitarianism. What is objectionable is not that some people have less than others. It is not unjust that millionaires have less than billionaires. What is objectionable is that some people, through no fault of their own, lack the basic necessities of nutrition, health care, education, housing, and so forth. They are our fellow citizens, and because of that we feel compassion for their plight.

Second, the plight of innocent victims who lack the basic necessities is not ignored. On the contrary, they are being helped by their fellow citizens who are taxpayers. Take a family of four with an annual income of $70,000. They are likely to pay about $25,000 in federal, state, property, and school taxes. Approximately 60 percent of the federal and state budget is spent on social programs. Thus roughly 60 percent of the family's annual taxes, that is, $15,000, is spent on social programs. The family, therefore, contributes over 20 percent of their income, more than one dollar out every five, to helping others, including the innocent victims. This is more than enough to acquit them of the charge of shamefully ignoring the plight of their fellow citizens that egalitarians baselessly level against them.

Third, the relentless egalitarian propaganda eagerly parroted by the media would have us believe that our society is guilty of dooming people to a life of poverty. What this ignores is the unprecedented success of our society in having less than 13 percent of the population live below a very generously defined poverty level and 87 percent above it. The typical ratio in past societies is closer to the reverse. It is a cause for celebration, not condemnation, that for the first time in history a very large segment of the population has escaped poverty. If egalitarians had a historical perspective, they would be in favor of the political and economic system that has made this possible, rather than advocating absurd policies that undermine it.

John Kekes is the author of many books, the most recent of which is The Illusions of Egalitarianism, published by Cornell University Press in 2003. He may be reached at


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