Is Inequality Ever Not Bad?: Elizabeth Anderson Thinks So

For a recent column for “The Stone,” a regular feature of The New York Times, Gary Gutting interviews Elizabeth Anderson, professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Anderson does not believe that all inequalities are “bad.” For instance, Anderson points out:

The only just inequalities are those that promote everyone’s interests. Hierarchies based on identity groups violate this standard, because they gratuitously subordinate some people for the sake of arbitrarily exalting others. Because there are some social problems that hierarchy is needed to solve, it is important to sharply distinguish who you are from what you do. Authority — the power to issue legitimate orders to others — attaches to offices, not persons.

The egalitarian objection to hierarchies based on group identities is grounded in this idea: no one is entitled to any authoritative office, or should be doomed to subordinate office, based simply on who they are — that is, on some group identity. Nor should authority be attached to group identity: men are not entitled to order women around, nor are whites entitled to order blacks around. Such hierarchies, far from promoting everyone’s interests, raise up some groups at others’ expense.

However, some inequalities are bad. Toward the end of her interview, Anderson considers the ways in which identities and inequalities intersect to form a complex matrix, one that can end up producing longstanding economic inequality:

Poverty is certainly a serious problem in the U.S. and the world. The poor suffer more from virtually every other identity-based inequality. Nevertheless we should not reduce other inequalities to poverty, or even to class inequality. Consider the fact that young college women suffer significant rates of sexual assault, even if they aren’t poor, and that they still rarely get justice in the courts or the wider culture. Consider the fact that police target black men for suspicion and arrest even if they are wearing business attire.

Even if we consider only class relations, objectionable forms of social hierarchy reach deeply into the middle class. Bosses can, and do, fire middle managers for taking off-hours political positions that they disapprove of. This is your plutocracy at work, and it doesn’t only affect the poor. The wages of the bottom 90 percent have been stagnant since the mid-1970s even as productivity has galloped ahead. If you want to think about class inequality, it’s worth considering how the rules of the economic game have been rigged to favor the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent at the expense of everyone else. Class inequality is not just about poverty, and it’s not just about the distribution of income and wealth. When bosses fire workers for their sexual orientation or political views, we observe abuses of power that aren’t just about money.

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