Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Liam Shields on Anglo-American Fairness and the State of the Union

As an Englishman who has recently moved to the US, I am constantly confused by aspects of American life. For instance, I don’t understand tipping, I am always surprised when I am asked how I would like my hamburger cooked, and I am especially flummoxed by the US political system, which seems designed to make change impossible. Nevertheless, I believe I have stumbled on something we have in common, an ideal of fairness that is worthy of discussion.

In Barack Obama’s recent state of the union address he promised decisive action to address inequality. He promised to expand opportunity for more American families and to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.  “What I believe unites the people of this nation ... is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead” he said. This idea is one that resonates far beyond the USA. Indeed, it is strikingly similar to how some Conservative members of the British government present their mission: as “rebuilding the economy for those who work hard and play by the rules”. The core idea is simple and fairly clear: Any citizen should secure a good standard of living if they work hard and obey the law. Let’s call this Our Ideal.

I believe ours is a sound ideal and if it were better realized in the US and UK they would be much fairer places. However, there are two aspects of Our Ideal that we may find somewhat surprising. First, Our Ideal is not robustly egalitarian since its realization is compatible with huge inequalities. Instead, it aims at making people sufficiently well-off. To illustrate this point, imagine Bert and Ernie. Bert earns a decent living as a nurse and Ernie is a stockbroker who earns one hundred times as much. Both work hard. Both obey the law. Both earn a decent living. Many egalitarians would find this inequality unfair, but it cannot be condemned by Our Ideal.

Second, though not robustly egalitarian it is an ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’. It specifies the obstacles (unwillingness to work hard or obey the law) that may legitimately obstruct citizens’ from obtaining some good (a decent standard of living). Citizens have an opportunity for that good since they can work hard and obey the law or not. The good is neither unachievable nor guaranteed. However, Our Ideal has very radical implications of which our politicians may not be aware.

In societies like ours there aren’t enough decent jobs for everyone who is qualified, let alone everyone who works hard and obeys the law. Instead, co-citizens compete with one another to secure jobs that are necessary for most of us to secure a decent standard of living. When there are more hard-working law-abiders than jobs, some of them inevitably miss out what Our Ideal states is rightly theirs. Our Ideal cannot easily be reconciled with this competitive model of job allocation.

Our Ideal requires a radically different type of economy; an economy in which either i) anyone can secure a well-paid job if they are law-abiding and hard-working or ii) there are significant unemployment benefits for hard-working law-abiders who can’t get work due to the market. I take it that the best route to realizing ‘Our Ideal’ is to ensure that people are in work rather than on welfare. If we are serious about ‘Our Ideal’ then there are at least two things we can do.

First, we need to ensure there are enough jobs for every hard-working law-abider. This requires an increase in the supply of jobs. To achieve this government could become an employer of last resort or make it easier for those in well-paid jobs to decrease their hours without sacrificing a decent wage. The following example provides some illustration. Some people in very well-paid jobs may prefer to have free time and work half the hours for half the pay. Another person, who would otherwise be out of work, would likely be willing to work the remaining hours. If every well-paid job was like this, and if individuals could be adequately trained, this proposal would effectively double those well-paid jobs. Second, these jobs must pay enough to meet the decent standard of living. This could be achieved by increasing the minimum wage or by reducing the costs of having a decent standard of living. Because purchasing power fluctuates, wages must keep up with inflation and the cost of a decent standard of living. Alternatively, tax credits or transfers for those paid less than the minimum wage would have the same effect.

There may be some pleasant side-effects of pursuing Our Ideal. Rather than competing with one another for jobs and a decent standard of life, depending for our success on others’ failure, we might view one another in a different way, and see our own success as compatible with, rather than opposed to, their success. For when there is a scarcity of jobs we view our fellow citizens as a threat, rather than a compliment, to our own good. This new relationship might help arrest growing alienation from politics and society in general, especially among young people.

I draw on ideas in the following articles and books:
Paul Gomberg, How to Make Opportunity Equal: Race and Contributive Justice, 2007, Blackwell.
Julie Rose, "Money Does Not Guarantee Time: Discretionary Time as a Distinct Object of Distributive Justice." Journal of Political Philosophy (2013).
Peter Westen, "The concept of equal opportunity", Ethics 95.4 (1985): 837-850.

Dr Liam Shields is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford Universit, working on a Spencer Funded Project on Equality of Opportunity in Education. Dr Shields also holds a faculty position in Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He is an alumnus of the University of York, where he read for the MA in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration) in 2008-9, funded by a scholarship from the C & JB Morrell Trust.

Liam Shields tweets at @PhilosopherLiam

Anyone interested in applying for a Morrell Trust scholarship for MA studies at the University of York in 2014-15, should consult these pages:

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