Rusell’s post below leads me to post a question that I have been meaning to throw out for some time. When we look at the plight of the poor, what is the evil that we see: poverty or inequality?
Now the it may be that the proper answer is both, but it is worth disentangling to two issues, since I think people tend to get them confused. I think of the problem of poverty as being addressed to absolute levels of wealth. What we are concerned about is whether or not people have the resources to live a minimally decent life. Obviously, many people in the world do not have these resources. Inequality is about comparative levels of wealth. What worries us is that some people have so much more than other people. Note, however, that these two problems are distinct from one another. One could imagine a very egalatarian society that is nevertheless impoverished and one could imagine a society with no poverty but vast inequalities of wealth.
For example, Freidrich Von Hayek, the nobel prize economist who is one of the founders of contemporary libertarianism actually favored a government sponsored minium income. He thought that a wealthy society could afford to guarantee the material well being of the people at the bottom. At the same time, he opposed intrusive government regulation of the economy and legal rules aimed at eliminating inequalities of wealth. In contrast, the political philosopher John Rawls thought that inequalities of wealth were presumptively unjust and could only be justified on the basis of benefits accruing the least advantaged in society. In theory this seems (to me) to commit Rawls to a rejection of Pareto superior moves in social wealth. Thus, if A gained wealth while B did not, the resulting inequality is unjust even if A’s gain caused no harm to B, and even if society could not be arranged so that A could capture some of B’s gain.
I think a there is a great deal of confusion about these two issues. Many political conservatives think that any collective concern for the poor is an attempt to eliminate inequality, which they see as an illegitimate goal. Many political liberals seem to think that eliminating inequalities of wealth will necessarily amerliorate the condition of those in poverty. Yet neither position is logically required.
So here are my questions. First, which of these issues should be of greater concern to us? Second, to what extent are the problems linked together? My own set of intuitions is that poverty is a much more pressing problem than inequality, and that the presence of inequality may be a necessary condition for the amelioration of poverty. I am not sure if this is commiting me to some Rawlsian notion of distributive justice or if I think it is simply a social fact.