The standard argument against full egalitarianism is the Levelling Down Objection (LDO). What if there is an argument for egalitarianism that turns the LDO on its head?
It is usually asserted by thoughtful people that what matters is poverty, not inequality. Inequality would only matter only as far as it engenders bad consequences, as some researchers have tried to show. So far I’m unconvinced of the strongest claims (Sorry, Pickett & Wilkinson).
But Branko Milanovic presented here an argument defending that you can’t actually care about poverty, only inequality. Poverty would be a confused idea. Relative poverty is inequality, and absolute poverty doesn’t make sense. Why?
The key idea: our needs are social.
The LDO states that full egalitarianism requires us to destroy wealth to pursue equality. A world with 1 poor and 1000 rich would be worse than a world with 1001 poor people.
Milanovic’s would proceed as follows:
- Let absolute poverty be the existence of certain basic needs
- Let relative poverty, or inequality, be any differential in the resource distribution
- Assume needs fully depend on a social context. That is, what peole want depend on what others want, or have.
- From (1,3), it follows that absolute poverty is society-relative. (e.g. Hunter-gatherers weren’t poor from their point of view.)
- Assume people’s needs increase with societal wealth, or reference group’s societal wealth
- If societal resources belonging to the rich are destroyed, inequality and societal wealth decreases
- If so, by (5), people will have less needs, and by (3) they will compare themselves to the new societal standards for needs, that will be reduced.
- Therefore, by (4), absolute poverty will necessarily decrease by destroying the rich’s resources.
- Assume there is a positive correlation between income inequality and greater differences between perceived and unmet needs
- Therefore, by (1,3,9), income inquality produces unhappiness (if happiness is obtained via need satisfaction)
- Therefore, by (3,4), needs satisfaction or happiness does not increase with increased wealth.
- Reducing inequality increases happiness (by 10), and reducing absolute poverty does only so insofar as it reduces inequality (by 1,3)
- Therefore, if you care about need satisfaction or happiness, you should only care about inequality, not poverty.
- Therefore, destroying wealth, as long as doing so reduces inequality, increases needs satisfaction and happiness
- Therefore, the LDO fails. Increasing happiness/needs satisfaction is consistent with destroying the rich’s wealth.
I think there are plenty of holes in this argument, including some empirical assertions that have to be checked. I leave it here for you to comment on, or for future debunking at some point.
EDIT: The argument, debunked. People’s absolute income does mater (as does relative income). Therefore, premise 3 seems dubious. People do have a sense of absolute satisfaction. The concept of poverty still makes sense, and the arguments for not caring about inequality, but about poverty remain valid.