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Elizabeth Anderson joins us this week to talk about egalitarianism. Should we be concerned about an equal distribution of resources in a society?

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.


In this episode Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus talk about egalitarianism with Professor Elizabeth Anderson. Should we be concerned about an equal distribution of resources in a society? An equal distribution of outcomes? Is it a bad thing for some people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own? And whose job is it to enforce such distributions—government or markets?

Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.


0:00:00.3 Aaron Powell: Hi, this is Aaron Powell, co‐​host of Free Thoughts. The show is taking a holiday break and we’ll be back with fresh episodes starting January 8th, but we thought it would be fun to take the next two weeks to resurface a couple of shows from our first year that you might have missed. My pick comes from way back on May 5th, 2014, and features guest Elizabeth Anderson. Professor Anderson is a thinker I wish more libertarians were familiar with. She’s not a libertarian herself, but she has a deep understanding of libertarian theory and is what I’ll call a sympathetic critic. She raises important and challenging questions, and even when I disagree with her answers, I learn a lot from how she thinks about them.

0:00:40.5 Aaron Powell: Professor Anderson has been on the Free Thoughts twice. In this first appearance, we discuss egalitarianism. What’s the best way to think about the justice of different distributions of goods in society? Should we care whether some people have more stuff than others, or are there other principles that matter more? And even if we think existing inequality is unjust, what’s the proper response to that? I hope you enjoy this thought‐​provoking episode from our early days.


0:01:13.6 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, a podcast project of the Cato Institute’s lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. Free Thoughts is a show about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it. I’m Aaron Powell, a research fellow here at Cato and editor of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.

0:01:26.9 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute Center for Constitutional Studies.

0:01:32.9 Aaron Powell: Our topic for today’s episode is egalitarianism, and joining us to discuss it is Elizabeth Anderson. Professor Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Professor Anderson.

0:01:48.6 Elizabeth Anderson: Thank you.

0:01:50.2 Aaron Powell: I want to just start with what I think a lot of libertarians, when they hear the term egalitarianism, they have this picture of wanting to make everyone equal in the sense of how much stuff they have, so radical wealth redistribution…

0:02:08.7 Trevor Burrus: Hating merit, that’s another good one.

0:02:09.0 Aaron Powell: That everyone should just kinda be the same in what they… In everything that they have. Is that an accurate picture now? Is it… If it isn’t, has that ever been an accurate picture of egalitarianism?

0:02:22.6 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, so I agree with you that that’s the popular conception, but I’ve been doing work now on the history of egalitarianism basically from the mid‐​17th century forward, and I’m arguing that the core ideal of egalitarianism isn’t essentially connected with issues of distributive equality of income and wealth, but it’s much more fundamentally connected to a critique of social hierarchy. Deep down, what egalitarians oppose is hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, gender, caste, religion. And social hierarchies are fundamentally defined in terms of specific relationships between people, the most important one being relations of domination and subjection.

0:03:19.3 Elizabeth Anderson: So the most important kind of hierarchy that egalitarians oppose is one in which some people get to order other people around and tell them what to do, and usually those hierarchies are based on some background identity difference between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers might be a different caste or a different race, but sometimes it’s based on wealth too. But if you look at the origins of egalitarianism, they didn’t oppose inequalities of wealth in and of themselves, what they opposed was a ruling class based on wealth, the idea that you’re entitled to rule somebody else, just because you own a lot of property. That was the core idea behind the Levellers, and that’s an idea that’s really carried out through the egalitarian tradition, and we can even see some of those concerns in the present day.

0:04:21.6 Trevor Burrus: And of course, the Enlightenment tradition and the founding principles of America, and even part of the French Revolution, had equality as one of its core aims, not just liberty, as maybe libertarians would like to say, especially coming out of a monarchy and different types of class system that had been the norm in the world throughout history.

0:04:41.7 Elizabeth Anderson: That’s quite right. So a lot of Enlightenment thinkers were really, they opposed aristocracy, and what is aristocracy? It’s not just that you have a bunch of wealthy landowners, but the landowners are the ruling class in virtue of the fact that they own a lot of property. And that’s a very problematic idea. But the Enlightenment in general was not opposed to some people having more money or wealth than others. The question is whether having more wealth entitled those people to rule over other people who had less.

0:05:18.9 Aaron Powell: You mentioned the Levellers, are they the source of egalitarianism? Are they the first egalitarians or does this idea go back even further?

0:05:29.9 Elizabeth Anderson: That’s a wonderful question. You can find egalitarian ideas going back even to biblical times. It’s, I think, a core idea of almost all monotheistic religions, that there is an equality of souls, that one soul doesn’t differ from another, they’re all equally eligible for salvation, at least in principle. The difficulty was with these older biblical forms of egalitarianism was there was always a million reasons why the equality of souls never translated into equality of social relations on Earth. You’d only get into an egalitarian position in heaven.

0:06:16.3 Elizabeth Anderson: What’s interesting about the 17th century is here you have a movement in the English Civil War, the Levellers, who really want to bring egalitarian social relations down to earth. Now, you can see some precedence, even before the 17th century, that start to arise really with the Protestant Reformation. Luther declared the priesthood of all believers, that is, you didn’t need some priest to mediate an individual’s relationship to God. At the same time, common people were learning how to read and they read the Bible for themselves, and they decided, “Hey, we can interpret the Bible on our own, we don’t need the priests to tell us how to understand what the Bible demands.” And so, if anything, you can see the origins of more egalitarian thinking arising earlier in the Protestant Reformation with the rise of a variety of egalitarian religious sects, including most notably the Quakers and also some Baptist sects, which wanted to reject the hierarchy of priesthood and achieve a much more egalitarian style of worship within the churches.

0:07:32.7 Elizabeth Anderson: So if you want to go further back, I suppose you could trace egalitarianism to the Reformation, but as far as state relations go and limitations on state power, that’s largely arising in the mid‐​17th century, around the time of the English Civil War.

0:07:49.4 Trevor Burrus: And in many ways, the [0:07:51.1] ____ republicanism as was used by Founding Father figures like Alexander Hamilton really just to expressed a lack of social hierarchy to a degree. And you read a lot of early Founder writings and you see them complaining about the opulence of George Washington’s carriage, for example, as being a demonstration of not having egalitarian republican principles, which seems kind of similar to complaining about Catholic ornateness against Protestant austerity, right?

0:08:19.8 Elizabeth Anderson: Yes, I think there’s something to that, although I wouldn’t necessarily cite Hamilton as among the Founders who were keen on opposing…

0:08:29.7 Trevor Burrus: Monarchy? Monarchy, yeah, that’s a good point.

0:08:31.9 Elizabeth Anderson: Monarchy. He’s a little bit more inegalitarian. The real star of the American Revolution from an egalitarian point of view is Tom Paine. And Tom Paine really embodied a style of radical egalitarianism that was also quite libertarian and that informed radical movements, not just in the United States, but in France, and importantly, in England. The Chartist movement took a lot of its ideas from Paine, and a lot of those ideas resonate pretty strongly with contemporary libertarian critiques of the state.

0:09:13.7 Aaron Powell: So far, what we’ve talked about has been mostly this equality of power distributions in an anti‐​hierarchy view, but there has been a strain in egalitarianism of what we’ve called equality of fortune or distribution. And is that… When did that come in?

0:09:38.8 Trevor Burrus: What is that? And also when did that come in?

0:09:40.7 Elizabeth Anderson: Sure, yeah.

0:09:40.8 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

0:09:43.3 Aaron Powell: Right. Why don’t we go back to the Levellers for a moment, because they represent a really interesting kind of movement. The Levellers were called the Levellers because people accused them of wanting to level all differences in wealth, and they disavowed that completely. In fact, they argued in favor of free trade and private property. They were totally in favor of these institutions. But if you look at the core of what they opposed, they opposed monopoly privileges that were granted by the state. That’s the sense in which they were free traders. They saw the state as creating a bunch of cronies by granting monopoly privileges to various manufacturers and merchants that would then shut everybody else out of access to opportunities to set up their own businesses and compete on a level playing field with everybody else.

0:10:46.2 Elizabeth Anderson: So there is a true sense in which they were levellers, they wanted to level down privilege. They wanted the state to grant everyone an equal set of rights. And in that sense of levelling down, there’s really nothing objectionable to it. It just means getting rid of a class of cronies whose wealth is founded on special monopoly privileges that the state has granted them. So you can see in a sense, if you think that the source of property inequality is due to the privileges that a particular class has obtained from a state, libertarians should equally well oppose that kind of inequality and equally well call for a levelling down, or perhaps what you should say, is levelling up everybody to equal rights to set up their own business and compete with the people who at the time had been granted monopolies to engage in certain kinds of trading and manufacturing.

0:11:56.2 Elizabeth Anderson: So that’s a point at which distribution comes in, but that concern with distribution I think is something that libertarians could sign on to completely. It’s only later, really with the rise of socialism that you get a much more strongly distributionist sense of egalitarianism, which is founded in a critique of the unequal outcomes that free markets deliver. But that’s really a 19th century idea. You look in the 17th and 18th centuries, and egalitarianism is not fundamentally about distribution, except insofar as it’s opposed to unequal distributions that are created by state privilege and monopoly.

0:12:47.6 Trevor Burrus: And then industrialisation, though, of course, changes the world a little bit more, because if everyone is more or less farming, it doesn’t seem like anyone can really shoot ahead of everyone else without having these large factories and industrial things to create that level of wealth.

0:13:04.2 Elizabeth Anderson: That’s exactly right. So if you read somebody like Adam Smith, who I take to be the star of an earlier fairly moderate kind of egalitarianism, as Smith was not a radical like Tom Paine, ’cause he hadn’t really signed on to a fully republican program. He was more or less happy with monarchy, although he certainly had his critiques of the ruling class who he thought were largely either a little bit dull, if they were landowners, or conspiring against the public, if they were manufacturers trying to get their monopoly privileges. When you leave that aside, Smith didn’t really have a clear alternative to monarchy in his day, but he did share a lot of the radical republican sympathy for free markets precisely because the alternative that was on the table at the time was government‐​granted privilege. And it’s one of the reasons why Smith, he opposed monopolies. He opposed also primogeniture, that is, laws that forbade the break up of estates through inheritance, where all of the land would just go to the firstborn son that would consolidate these huge estates and disinherit all the other second and later born children.

0:14:31.3 Elizabeth Anderson: He wanted… There were all kinds of other laws in England too, that opposed the break‐​up of large estates, and he thought that a free market in land would naturally lead to more industrious yeoman farmers. They would be more efficient in farming the land, and so you would generally see a break‐​up of these huge estates, because the aristocrats were not very entrepreneurial, they were sort of dullards. And it’d be better actually if the rules of inheritance were changed to allow the estates to be sold off in pieces and enable more people to lead independent lives of self‐​employment.

0:15:12.0 Trevor Burrus: And then the Marxist critique, or I guess socialists even pre‐​date Marx a bit, but then they started talking more about wealth or actual holdings, I guess.

0:15:21.1 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, and the key thing is, as you noted before, that what happened was, Smith was writing before the Industrial Revolution or right at the beginning, and he was actually fairly skeptical that you would need huge, large‐​scale enterprises. He thought, “Oh, there’d only be a couple occasions where you’d need that, say, for building a canal.” Once the Industrial Revolution is well underway in England around the 1830s, you see people starting to worry about the factory system. And here you have huge numbers of people who were formerly self‐​employed in small workshops, now they have been tossed into unemployment because the giant factories are much more efficient producers, so they lose their independence and then they have to hire themselves out to the factory owners for poverty‐​level wages.

0:16:18.6 Elizabeth Anderson: That’s the point at which people start realizing that the older egalitarian vision in which in principle all enterprises would be small‐​scale, and consequently there would be a huge number of opportunities for self‐​employment, people see that vision isn’t really working out as anticipated. The Industrial Revolution means the vast majority of people are going to be wage laborers. They’re going to have to be working under the subjection of their employer who orders them around in every little motion minutely for most of their waking lives. Remember, in those days, the length of the working day could easily be 12 or 14 hours.

0:17:08.3 Elizabeth Anderson: And then people start thinking, well, okay, if we can’t break up the big factories into small workshops, then we have to find other ways for workers to have fulfilling lives and there are two main techniques: One of them is to reduce the length of the working day, so workers have more hours where they can be under their own recognizance and decide what they do just for themselves without having to take orders from an employer. And secondly, ensuring that they have a decent enough level of income so that they can do something with those free hours other than just barely scraping by the means of subsistence. And that’s the point at which a concern for distributive justice in and of itself becomes really prominent, especially in socialist movements, social democracy and so forth in Europe. And it took longer for that to come over to the United States, but in Europe, it was already very prominent by the mid‐​19th century.

0:18:12.3 Aaron Powell: When did egalitarianism emerge as, I guess, a self‐​consciously recognized school within political philosophy? Because so far we’ve been talking about… We talked about Adam Smith, we talked about Karl Marx, but these people didn’t see themselves as necessarily part of a school that would be called egalitarian, but nowadays, it’s a branch of political philosophy.

0:18:36.0 Elizabeth Anderson: Now, that’s a great, great question. In fact, it’s highly controversial, whether Marx would have thought of himself as an egalitarian. I think not. There’s a lot of good scholarship, I think, that shows that equality wasn’t really what he was up to. So, you see, at least intellectually, the late 19th century is a point at which self‐​conscious egalitarian thinking in the distributive sense starts becoming prominent. And the reason for this is you have this long 19th century during which all the theories of distributive justice are essentially founded on some notion of class conflict. The older Paineite radical republicans basically hated the lazy idle landowners and the government cronies who were living off of tax revenues in these no‐​show jobs that the state had set up for them. Those were the idlers, and they should be dispossessed. And Paine, all the way through George, with his single land tax, they think the landowners are the parasites of society, and to a certain extent, people living off tax revenue in these no‐​show jobs.

0:20:12.6 Elizabeth Anderson: And then you have, on the other hand, you have the socialist tradition coming out of Marx, who sees capitalists as the exploiters, the coupon clippers, they’re not doing any work, the workers are doing everything. So you see a little shift, but it’s still a very class conflict point of view. And even the laissez‐​faire capitalists, people like Spencer and Sumner, they explicitly endorsed class warfare and they said, “Look, it’s the capitalists versus the workers, and whatever pops out of that conflict is going to be the just distribution.” By the late 19th century, people are coming to realize that that way of understanding distribution is really problematic, and the main reason is that obviously you can’t get any kind of consensus.

0:21:10.7 Elizabeth Anderson: So in the late 19th century, you see theorists trying to come up with ideas of distributive justice that could, in principle, be inclusive of everyone’s interests. In the United States, you can even look around World War I, you see these ideas being formed. In England, it’s a bit earlier, late 19th century, picture people are striving for a notion of equality that will be inclusive of all classes. But distributive justice in its contemporary formulation with clear principles of distributive justice is mostly starting to happen around World War II.

0:22:10.7 Elizabeth Anderson: You see, for instance, the famous Beveridge Report articulating the principles of a welfare state and comprehensive social insurance in Britain. Before then, you actually had Bismarck and his plans for social insurance, that was already in the late 19th century. And Bismarck basically was trying to figure out a way to make capitalism acceptable to the workers and to dislodge the popularity of the socialist movement by showing that capitalism could deliver real benefits to the workers, and that’s why Bismarck, the arch reactionary anti‐​socialist was in fact the author of Germany’s welfare state.

0:22:56.3 Trevor Burrus: And it seems like you start having a conversation about desert, obviously, what do you deserve? And responsibility too, to some extent, workers versus capitalists or underclass versus rich people, and whether not people are getting what they deserve and what they’re responsible for.

0:23:13.3 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, if anything, I see desert‐​based notions of distributive justice are much more where the 19th century class conflict view was coming from. That… The labor theory of value is based on a theory of productive contribution, you should get in accordance with what you contribute. But the labor theory of value said workers were the only people who were contributing anything, alright, so the workers should get 100% of the product. Now, Marx himself had a problem with that, and he criticized that view, but that was a very popular view among… Who’d you call popular Marxism, if not Marx himself.

0:23:53.9 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, the harder you work, the more blisters you have. The more sweat on your brow, the more you deserve.

0:24:00.3 Elizabeth Anderson: Quite right. And it’s really later on, starting with ideas of social insurance, that you see both the social democrats and people like Bismarck. People get the idea that, look… A lot of times, people can be prone to illness and industrial accidents and unemployment. It’s not, no fault of their own. You have a recession and millions of people are thrown out of work, it’s not because of anything wrong that they did, but now they no longer have an income, it’s not their fault. And so, instead of desert as productive contribution, you get the notion of, well, this suffering is not deserved because it wasn’t their fault.

0:24:49.7 Elizabeth Anderson: And that can be a rationale for social insurance, that you could see that people are prone to systematic risks of illness, disability, unemployment, and so forth, and the workers can get together, pay into a fund managed by the state or sometimes by private entities, so that if this risk befalls them, they’ll have something to fall back on and will not suffer destitution as a result of some undeserved bad luck.

0:25:22.7 Aaron Powell: You’ve been talking a lot about political and social movements and views of egalitarianism within those. Within the Academy at this time, were philosophy professors mirroring what you’re describing on the outside world, or were they going off in different directions?

0:25:41.5 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, the academics too… Already, by the late 19th century, as I said, people were trying to move towards a vision of distributive justice that isn’t just going to be based on class conflict, but something that could unite all classes of society around a common vision. So you see in England people like Tawney, or in the United States, Ralph Barton Perry, famous philosopher around World War I, they’re kind of groping towards this. But you don’t see really sharp analytical accounts of distributive justice until the post‐​World War II era. And of course, in the United States, really difficult thinking about distributive justice was largely propelled by John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, where he puts distributive justice back into academic discourse in a major way by articulating and defending egalitarian principles of distribution.

0:26:52.4 Trevor Burrus: But it seems like he kind of has a responsibility theory or maybe in the what you call luck egalitarianism of the things that are not your fault, such as your natural intelligence or natural speed or maybe your birth parents should not factor heavily into your placement in society.

0:27:10.0 Elizabeth Anderson: So yeah, there’s a number of different ideas that are connected here. Many people have thought that Rawls is what is known as a luck egalitarian, who says that nobody should be less well off than anybody else because of bad luck or factors that are not their responsibility. I actually think that’s a deep misreading of what Rawls is up to. Rawls, in fact, was ready to tolerate quite a lot of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth that could be traced to things like the genetic lottery, that some people are just born with talents that are highly valued by the market and other people are born with genetic endowments that are not highly valued by the market. Rawls actually did not have a fundamental objection to the fact that inequalities generated by an efficient market‐​based system would reward some people with some genes rather than others, even though they didn’t deserve, obviously nobody deserves the genes that they were born with, that’s pure luck. Rawls’ more fundamental kind of egalitarianism is based rather on a certain conception of how the rules of the market game should be designed. It’s about the rules of the game and not about the outcomes.

0:28:43.6 Elizabeth Anderson: Okay, so his idea is you should design the rules of the economic game, the rules of property and contract, and regulation and so forth, and taxation in such a way that those rules will ensure that inequalities that help the better off will also help the worst off in society. What you want is inequalities to be to the advantage of everyone. So Rawls’ fundamental idea is, look, he’s going to tolerate inequality, but he wants to make sure that inequality is serving everybody’s interests and not just the interests of the people at the top. This is what he called the difference principle. And there’s a lot of inequalities of that sort.

0:29:39.4 Elizabeth Anderson: Some people have much nicer jobs that involve a lot of intellectual thinking and discretion and freedom of judgment and responsibility, those things are generally enjoyable features of the job. But if you’re going to be a doctor, you need a lot of discretion and a lot of opportunities for intellectual labor. It’s not a good use of a doctor’s time to have her scrubbing toilets or something. Everyone benefits if she can devote her energies at work towards serving patients. And the poor also benefit from the fact that her professional life is relatively cushy in the sense that it’s insulated from dreary, drudgy, burdensome labor, that in fact, it’s pretty interesting work. But hey, otherwise you wouldn’t have enough doctors, it would be way more expensive to help the sick get better.

0:30:45.5 Aaron Powell: I wanted to talk about luck egalitarianism, because you’ve raised some really interesting criticisms of it in some of your writing. But before we turn to that, I wanted to see if you could give us a sense of what egalitarianism broadly looks like now. One of the things that Trevor and I have talked about in past episodes of Free Thoughts is the idea that libertarianism is not one philosophy, but it’s a group of different views that share some traits in common, but also have meaningful differences between them. And egalitarianism is the same way. There are different kinds of egalitarians who can disagree with each other about very fundamental issues. So I was wondering if you could give us the bird’s-eye view of what some of these different sorts of egalitarianism are, the big ones today and how they differ from each other?

0:31:41.3 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, so I broadly divide egalitarianism into two groups of theories: One I call luck egalitarianism, and that’s based on the view that nobody should have less than anybody else due to factors that they’re not responsible for or that they don’t deserve, okay? So if somebody’s worse off than somebody else due to sheer luck, that’s considered unjust according to luck egalitarians. And then they derive a whole bunch of other ideas about distributive justice from that fundamental idea that inequalities due to pure luck should be eliminated. The other group of theories I call relational egalitarianism, because what they’re most interested in is not the distribution of income and wealth and other goods in and of themselves, but rather how people relate to each other in society.

0:32:52.6 Elizabeth Anderson: So according to a relational egalitarian, the fundamental egalitarian objective is basically to eliminate oppressive social hierarchy, relations of domination and subjection, relations of stigmatization where some people are despised or degraded because of their social identity, their race or their sexual orientation or things like that, and also social relations in which some people basically just don’t count in the eyes of others, say relations in which the state is organized in such a way that whole groups of people and their interests just don’t figure into the state’s calculations of how to formulate public policy.

0:33:53.2 Elizabeth Anderson: So those three sorts of hierarchy, hierarchies of domination and subjection, hierarchies of honor and stigmatization and hierarchies of high and low standing in the eyes and calculation of others, those are the three kinds of social hierarchies that relational egalitarians oppose, and they want to replace those social relations with social relations of equality where people recognize that they have to interact with others on terms of mutual respect in regard for their interests and can’t go around just despising them because of their social identity and treating them as outcasts on that account. And that second relational form of egalitarianism is what I’ve been trying to promote. I’m arguing that you can trace this all the way back to the earliest days of egalitarianism with the Levellers and that this form of egalitarianism also, it can accept a variety of modes of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, although on this view, there will be some inequalities in income and wealth that will be too extreme to be acceptable.

0:35:25.6 Aaron Powell: Then, before we get into exploring those, exploring what sorts of inequality is acceptable and what’s not and why and what we ought to do about it, you’re… On the topic of luck egalitarianism, you’re pretty down on luck egalitarianism, and so…

0:35:43.1 Trevor Burrus: In a way that many, I think, libertarians would appreciate your critiques of what they generally think of luck egalitarianism.

0:35:51.3 Aaron Powell: Right, and so I just wanted… Could you tell us what’s wrong with luck egalitarianism?

0:35:55.9 Elizabeth Anderson: Sure. Well, there’s a lot of problems I have with luck egalitarianism. They… For one thing, luck egalitarians, I think just foundationally, they have not articulated any realistic sense of what could possibly be an injustice. So on my view, for something to count as an injustice, you have to identify somebody who is suffering something that they’re entitled to complain about, and you have to identify somebody else to whom they can address that complaint who is responsible for it.

0:36:40.5 Trevor Burrus: Which is actually a view that Friedrich Hayek actually also expressed about justice.

0:36:45.0 Elizabeth Anderson: Quite right.

0:36:47.0 Trevor Burrus: That you have to identify a person, not just a volcano or something impersonal like that.

0:36:52.2 Elizabeth Anderson: That’s exactly right. And my problem with it is that if somebody’s born with less talent, say, than somebody else, number one, I fundamentally don’t think that that is in itself anything to complain about. It’s nobody’s fault here. We’re assuming that the person wasn’t subject to… Like the mom, when she was pregnant with this person wasn’t maliciously drugged with something that caused a genetic mutation, we set aside those kind of perverted cases. In the normal case, if somebody’s born with less talent than somebody else, it’s just a matter of luck, there’s nobody to blame for it. But at the same time, I also think that it’s kind of perverse to direct one’s anger or complaints against the more talented.

0:37:51.9 Elizabeth Anderson: In a well‐​ordered society, the more talented… The exercise of the talents of the more talented should redound to the benefit of everyone, right? We all enjoy watching the superb athletes do their great performances in the sports they engage in. Most of us, of course, will never be that athletically talented. Similar for musical talents or any kind of artistic talents and also various productive and entrepreneurial talents. When society is running well, the more talented, when they exercise their talents, are actually doing stuff that redounds to everyone’s advantage. And so if one has less talent, one should feel happy that other people have talents that are helping them, so I don’t think that… And the luck egalitarianism, I think, inspires a kind of unjust envy towards the more talented, and we should discourage that sense of grievance against the more talented.

0:39:01.6 Trevor Burrus: It also seems that to, as you write, have something more like pity rather than compassion. In one line in your essay, which we’ll put a link up to in the show notes, you say, “Compassion and pity can both move a person to act benevolently, but only pity is condescending.”

0:39:17.7 Elizabeth Anderson: Quite right, right. And so the other side of the complaint is that luck egalitarianism not only inspires envy against the more talented, but also a kind of condescending pity towards the less talented, right. “Oh, it’s because they’re so pathetic that we have to give them more to make up for their innate deficiencies.” I think that is also a very inegalitarian thought. It’s obnoxious and offensive, and people should not want to claim resources on the basis of their inferiority to others.

0:39:55.3 Aaron Powell: That was one of the things I really liked about your critique of luck egalitarianism, was this sense that it’s, at a very deep level is simply disrespectful and not respectful of human dignity.

0:40:09.8 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah, that’s right.

0:40:13.0 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and you bring it up in a variety of ways, saying that putting yourself under obligation… Things that a lot of conservatives… It would resonate with conservatives, which probably would maybe strike people as odd, but there’s something about these laws that are insulting, both to the people administering them and the people they’re being administered to.

0:40:35.7 Elizabeth Anderson: I think that’s right. Now, I do want to stress, though, that both kinds of egalitarianism that exist today, both the relational egalitarians and the luck egalitarians are willing to accept quite a lot of distributive inequality. I’ve already explained how Rawls accepts inequalities that as a matter of fact redound to the advantage of everyone, but luck egalitarians too are perfectly happy to accept inequalities that really are due to, say, somebody working harder than another person or more prudently managing their assets. They’re perfectly happy to allow that.

0:41:20.8 Trevor Burrus: Or even people being misfortuned for their own fault, sometimes.

0:41:25.2 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, through their own fault. So luck egalitarians are perfectly happy to say that if you screwed up and it’s your fault, that there’s no injustice in your being less well‐​off than somebody who behaved more industriously and more prudently. So you don’t really see… It’s very rare today to see somebody who is trying to advance a really radical distributive equality that rejects any inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. I can’t actually think of anybody right now who is that extreme in either egalitarian camp.

0:42:06.8 Aaron Powell: On the relational egalitarianism, as you’ve described it, a lot of it seems to be stuff that libertarians could get behind. We could say people should be equal in their rights, they should be equal in treatment before the law and that sounds great. So I’m wondering, where does relational egalitarianism, as you advocate, part from libertarians? What are we going to disagree with as far as your vision for egalitarian justice?

0:42:39.1 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, so here’s one place where I think libertarians and relational egalitarians might part ways. Relational egalitarians do see a pretty strong rationale, both for a ceiling… I’m sorry, a floor below which people shouldn’t fall. So we believe in safety nets, and also see some rationales for limiting extreme accumulations at the top. And why don’t I focus on the top, because I think people are more familiar with the idea of safety nets. But relational egalitarians are pretty worried about, say, the contemporary distribution of wealth in United States, with more and more wealth accumulating to people at the top. The fundamental reason for that is political. It’s that the more extreme the wealth inequality, the more likely you’re going to end up with a plutocracy, where the rich are calling all the shots in government, and I think we see some evidence for that.

0:43:53.1 Elizabeth Anderson: If you want equality of standing, in the sense that the state should treat everyone’s interests as on a par and not just curry favor with some privileged group, then the current dependence of people in Congress on having to spend about 60% or 70% of their time fundraising from rich people and having to offer attention and agenda‐​setting power in return for that, is very problematic. So the prime objection to extreme inequalities of wealth is not that some people just get to be really rich, but rather that that wealth gets translated into unequal political power, until the rich just capture the political process, you don’t have a democracy anymore.

0:44:44.7 Aaron Powell: That seems like a concern that a lot of libertarians are actually onboard with. When we rail against, say, cronyism, it’s that people who are politically connected and people who are wealthy can bend the government to their will to get special favors that the rest of us can’t. But the libertarian solution to that is simply to reduce the size of government and the scope of its powers to the level that no one can get it to call shots in their favor, that the government, if it’s limited to simply protecting rights, say, then no matter how much money you have, you’re not going to be able to get it to give you favors, because it doesn’t have any favors to give.

0:45:25.2 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, and so, yeah. And here’s the rejoinder from relational egalitarians, is that contemporary capitalist systems actually depend on a very complicated infrastructure of property rights. These are the constitutive rules of the game for how capitalism is supposed to run, and it turns out that as technology and the scale of production get larger and larger, you need more and more complicated rules. Things like intellectual property, for instance. They can get pretty arcane. And the difficulty is, I think most people acknowledge that some form or other of intellectual property is going to be needed to stimulate innovation, but at the same time, intellectual property is a state‐​granted monopoly right, at least for a temporary period. So here we have a problem, because you could see how you could game the system of intellectual property rights in order to shore up massive monopoly power, but you can’t say, “We’re not going to have the state engaged in acknowledging or creating intellectual property rights.” I don’t know, maybe some libertarians think that.

0:46:48.4 Trevor Burrus: There actually are a lot of libertarians who think that, and for exactly the reasons you said, one of the reasons, the first one being that they don’t think it’s really property, in the sense of it’s not rivalrous, “I don’t take anything from you by taking an idea from you,” and then the other sense of, “It’s just constantly political gamesmanship for an intellectual monopoly established by the state,” and almost the same thing going back to the Levellers and saying, “It’s just as good as the king’s monopoly over shipping to the East India Company.”

0:47:15.8 Elizabeth Anderson: Right.

0:47:16.5 Trevor Burrus: And then creating… That happened of course, with the Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1998, when the Sonny Bono Copyright Act is what it’s actually called, when Disney was complaining about the fact that Mickey Mouse was about to go into the public domain and that was one of the biggest reasons they extended that.

0:47:32.9 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, so I think it would be an interesting experiment to see whether we could come up with some alternative method for encouraging innovation. I’m sort of of two minds of this, my own personal view is that copyright is completely outrageous and beyond the pale, and that the term of copyrights, if you allow it at all, should be radically reduced from what they currently are, and the evidence for this is that, as we can see from the explosion of information on the web, it looks as if people are perfectly willing to share their ideas with each other for free, they just want to be read.

0:48:13.9 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, creative commons.

0:48:15.1 Elizabeth Anderson: I mean, look at Wikipedia.

0:48:16.5 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

0:48:17.9 Elizabeth Anderson: It’s very impressive, actually, how many people just just want to communicate ideas to others and they’re not asking for any money for it, or perhaps only a voluntary contribution.

0:48:28.1 Trevor Burrus: Why would…

0:48:28.2 Elizabeth Anderson: On the other hand, with patents, I have some worries that there are certain kinds of invention that requires spectacular amounts of upfront investment, and if other people could just kinda seize the results, say, for pharmaceuticals, and it’s not to say, I’m not a great fan of Big Pharma, but hey, it really is objectively expensive to develop effective new drugs, and it’s hard to see how that could happen, if…

0:48:57.2 Trevor Burrus: Without patents.

0:49:00.9 Elizabeth Anderson: As soon as you invent it, other people can start manufacturing, ’cause marginal cost of manufacturing a pill is almost nothing, all the cost is in development.

0:49:08.3 Trevor Burrus: Well, yeah, we’ll probably… We’ll definitely have some intellectual property episodes in the future, probably on both sides. It’s a debate within libertarianism. I wanted to go back a little bit, though, when you were talking about political influence, I think this really gets to a core of relational egalitarianism, that it’s not just wealth that’s a problematic… Steve Jobs brought us a bunch of awesome things, but if Steve Jobs starts courting government power, it’s different. But one of the things that’s interesting in your work is when you’re talking about egalitarianism, you sort of have to start talking about who and what traits should get equal access or could create equality. What things should we be maximizing equality on? And if you removed money from the political process, it’s not the case that representatives would therefore then treat all of their constituents the same, or even more interestingly, it doesn’t even seem to be the case that the representatives should treat all of their constituents the same and not prioritize certain people in their districts over other people, not just like anyone who calls, I will give you as much a say about public policy as anyone else.

0:50:11.0 Elizabeth Anderson: Well, it is true that given that we have… That all modern democracies are based on competition among political parties, and parties themselves are organized around various constituencies and ideologies, that you can’t expect any given representative to treat absolutely everyone equally. So, given the realities of modern democracy, The best you can hope for, is not each individual representative treating every constituent exactly equally, but that the interplay of competing parties will bring about a rough parity of everyone, globally.

0:51:00.7 Trevor Burrus: But do you think it should be a parity? I mean, that’s the question of, in that… I think about this as some things might make it unequal, which goes back to the core question, wealth. Other people might have inequalities, such as the ability to be well‐​spoken or the ability to have… Create political coalitions and have a lot of friends and rally people and that would be an inequality in some sense, “that guy’s super charismatic and he gets people behind him, so he gets more of the ear of the legislator than someone who is not charismatic and can’t rally people behind him.” So you could have a egalitarian concerns about that.

0:51:34.8 Elizabeth Anderson: Oh, I see, yeah. So yeah, I’m not so much concerned about that, because they’re purely individual. So it is true that the smooth talkers and the better lookers are liable to have an advantage in electoral politics in the age of mass media and so forth, and that doesn’t worry me so much. Yeah, that’s just another way in which unequal talents tend to give people unequal advantages in competing for certain kinds of jobs. What I more worry about is, once the person is in office, how are they treating everybody else? And here, I acknowledge that any given politician is not going to be strictly impartial among all constituents, because they’re representatives of political parties that are coalitions of different groups of constituents, but that in the aggregate, in a well‐​run democracy, the play of interest group politics should, in the aggregate, work in such a way that everyone gets adequate representation of their interests in a representative democracy.

0:52:58.2 Aaron Powell: In this democratic equality, as you’ve referred to it, you talk about a need for equality of capabilities, that we should make sure that everyone is as capable of participating as everyone else. We’ve talked about this just now, in the political sphere, of political influence, but you also say that this… We need this equality of capabilities within civil society, as well. What do you mean by that?

0:53:23.1 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, so remember, I don’t think that… I’m not advocating literal, exact, mathematical equality of capabilities, because that’s really impossible. There will be some people who will be more highly educated than others, partly just ’cause they have a taste for studiousness. [chuckle] They study hard, they learn a lot more, they’re really interested in academic learning, so they’ll move further in the educational system. But I do think any egalitarian society is interested in ensuring that everybody has access to a decent education at the primary and secondary levels, and has a reasonable shot, given there are opportunities for primary and secondary education, that if they work hard and are studious, that they have a reasonable shot at a college education too, that their K-12 education is not so deficient that they could never qualify themselves for higher education. I think that’s unjust.

0:54:35.2 Elizabeth Anderson: The state should provide decent opportunities for everyone, but it doesn’t follow that they would be… That the outcomes would be equal, nor even necessarily that every single public school, say, would offer exactly the same opportunities as every other. I think that’s both impossible and probably unjust, because different communities have different tastes for education too. Some people… Some communities would rather spend their money on other things, and it’s not inherently unjust, as long as every kid gets a shot at a decent education, so they have the capabilities they need, both to function successfully in the economy and to function effectively as citizens.

0:55:34.1 Aaron Powell: In the essay, in your essay, What is the Point of Equality, one of the things that you… You say that egalitarianism demands for each of us is, quote, “The social conditions of being accepted by others, such as the ability to appear in public without shame and not being ascribed outcast status,” and I was curious about that when I read it, because I was wondering is that… It seems to be like there are… We could say, for races, it’s not okay to shame or ascribe outcast status to people on the basis of race or sexual orientation but does that extend even to, say, cultural attitudes or beliefs or behaviors? Because it seems there can be beliefs that one holds that might make it so that one deserves outcast status. If you’re a just virulent bigot or a member of the KKK or hold views that are just really repugnant.

0:56:33.2 Trevor Burrus: The Phelps church.

0:56:34.2 Aaron Powell: Right, and you should… And so you absolutely ought to be shamed when you’re in public.

0:56:39.6 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, yeah. Well, the Phelps church has almost uniquely, among political actors in contemporary America, figured out a way to be equally offensive to all groups, right or left.

0:56:50.0 Trevor Burrus: That’s an achievement in and of itself. Yeah.

0:56:52.1 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah. Takes hard work to do that. So yeah, we do live in a free society, freedom of speech, and so, the freedom to speak your mind is very, very important, but of course, it doesn’t mean that you are thereby entitled to be insulated from harsh criticism and rejection by people who hate your views. So in that sense, if we’re talking about pure ideological disagreement, we can hardly ask people to restrain their denunciation of views that they find appalling. I mean, that’s all part of a free society, and it could be that some groups then, on the basis of their ideology, will not fare well. But at the same time, remember, this is just a cultural matter, it’s a matter of civil society, it’s not the state’s business to go around enforcing real outcast status, even on the Phelps. They’re entitled to freedom of speech and all the legal rights that everyone else has. But then, in civil society, that is not in the legal or the state sense, but just in terms of their day‐​to‐​day interactions with other people. Other people despise them and don’t want to have anything to do with them, well, they have a right to despise them.

0:58:26.2 Trevor Burrus: So we’re almost out of time, but as a final question, Aaron and I have talked about this for a long time, but the question about the efficacy of the state being a consideration for a political philosophy. So you could have one situation… Something libertarians take very seriously, could say that what should the state do is the first question, and then what can the state do is the second question. And generally, political philosophers sort of sit in the should realm, and we’ve talked today about egalitarianism and a theory of it and different theories of it and say the state should be doing this, but if the state is unable to do certain things, if it can’t do it, and if ought implies can, which might be something you disagree with, then could that ever change the should, could the fact that the state is unable to do something effectively mean that we shouldn’t even be saying that the state should be doing it in the first place, or Aaron maybe put it a different way.

0:59:18.6 Aaron Powell: Or not just that the state might not be capable of executing the mission that’s been given to it but that it might be able to do it, but granting it the amount of power that it would take to carry out that mission carries huge risks as far as the state could then use that power, and if history serves, in many cases will use that power to do really awful things to us.

0:59:45.7 Trevor Burrus: Or even in the education sense too, of just, I completely agree in the principle that I want to live in a world where people have the best opportunity to succeed, but I don’t think that state education does that. And so we share that principle, but it’s different efficacy… Different use of the tools that we’re going to use for that.

1:00:06.1 Elizabeth Anderson: Right, certainly on the principle ground, I entirely agree with you that [1:00:09.1] ____ can. So if the state can’t do something, then you shouldn’t give the job to the state to do it. I agree entirely with that, and of course, it’s an empirical question, what the state is capable of doing or not, and it’s also worth vigorously exploring alternatives to state provision and seeing what other sorts of institutions can solve the problems that we face.

1:00:38.9 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, unfortunately, a lot of times the state sometimes keeps people from thinking about those other possibilities, which is because they think they have something in front of them, but maybe there are better possibilities outside of it.

1:00:51.7 Elizabeth Anderson: Yeah.

1:00:52.5 Aaron Powell: For libertarians who are listening to this and aren’t not ready to get on board with egalitarianism, what do you think, what should we still take away from this? What do you think is, even without abandoning libertarianism, what can we learn from egalitarianism?

1:01:12.6 Elizabeth Anderson: Well, I think if you look at the relational egalitarian tradition, I think libertarians would see a lot to like. Libertarians and relational egalitarians are united in their suspicion of some people wanting to boss other people around. And that’s where we really have a lot of common ground. Then the question is, what kinds of social practices and institutions do we have to construct in order to minimize that bossing around?

1:01:43.1 Aaron Powell: Thank you very much for coming on Free Thoughts, Professor Anderson.

1:01:45.9 Elizabeth Anderson: It’s a pleasure to talk to you.

1:01:48.5 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening to Free Thoughts. If you have any questions or comments about today’s show, you can find us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. That’s FreeThoughtsP‐​O‐​D. Free Thoughts is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and the Cato Institute. It’s produced by Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.