Wednesday, 19th February 2014

by Joshua Gaskell

I sometimes hear it said that inequality is a necessary evil; i.e., inequality is instrumental in driving competition and capitalist wealth-creation, so even though it’s intrinsically undesirable, it is made desirable overall by its instrumentality.

I think there’s a better, more philosophical way of understanding inequality vis-à-vis necessity. The position outlined above puts the cart before the horse by prizing the instrumental over the intrinsic, and seeing through it involves considering other possible economic worlds, not just the one we happen to live in.

In the statement inequality is a necessary evil, if necessary just has the basic meaning, ‘Indispensable, vital, essential; requisite’ (OED), then inequality is only instrumentally necessary inasmuch as it possesses those attributes to or for a certain end: it is indispensible, vital etc. for a specific type of economy, i.e. a capitalist one.

However, inequality is necessary in an intrinsic way too, in the sense of, ‘Inevitably determined or fixed by predestination or the operation of natural laws; happening or existing by an inherent necessity. […] resulting inevitably from the nature of things’ (OED). I mean that in no type of economy, not even a socialist one, would inequality entirely cease to exist.

So it’s true that inequality is a necessary evil: inequality is intrinsically evil, and human societies are intrinsically (necessarily) unequal. Once we understand this intrinsic, qualitative, possible-worlds stuff and the impossibility of changing it, it’s left to us to decide on the instrumental, qualitative, actual-world stuff. The universe does is, we do ought.

Put simply, the ought is this:

  • Inequality is evil and impossible to eradicate.
  • But economics is a social, not a natural science, and therefore partly determined by the choices that societies make.
  • Democracy allows us to choose whether we want an economy that promotes inequality or seeks to curb it.

In other words, do we want an economy that calls evil evil, or one that calls it ‘Indispensable, vital, essential; requisite’?