Culture & Society

Is All Inequality Unjust?

Inequality is part of the human condition, but our experience with liberal democracy shows that improvement is possible for everyone

Image Credit: kledge/Getty Images

The principle of equality precedes our government and is foundational to it. Thomas Jefferson believed this principle to be “self-evident”; Abraham Lincoln considered it the “proposition” to which the country is “dedicated.”

But there are those who maintain that the opposite is closer to the truth. What is self-evident, they affirm, is inequality in power, wealth, influence, education, achievement and ability, between individuals and groups alike. A mass of damning statistical evidence can be cited, from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to articles such as “The Top One Percent of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90 Percent,” “Ten Shocking Facts About Inequality in America,” and many more.

Whatever the accuracy of any given statistic, the reality of the case can be determined by a short drive through any American city. As a matter of brute fact rather than proclaimed ideal, our society and government appear to rest on a foundation of pervasive inequality.

The gulf between Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and the evidence of our own eyes calls for an explanation. The tendency today, particularly among the young and the well educated, is to assume massive levels of injustice: that is, to explain inequality by the prevalence of racism, sexism and various kinds of phobias triggered against oppressed groups.

That seems to be the position President Joe Biden has staked out for his administration, if we are to judge from the recent spate of executive orders aimed at implementing “equity” in the federal government. The president writes somberly of “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies” and of “historically underserved communities”—the list runs a paragraph deep—that are denied “fair, just, and impartial treatment.” American inequality, the executive orders suggest, can only be the outcome of American injustice.

The moment these claims get down to details, however, they become entangled in difficult questions; the most fundamental concerns what we mean by “equality.” After all, it’s obvious I will never be a heavyweight champion or a romantic hero in the movies. I’m just not built that way. If we buy into natural selection, we must then accept that each of us is at once the product and the replicator of millions of unequal outcomes. And sure enough, when we look beyond our borders, we find the same skewed division of power, wealth, influence, etc., in every country on earth—for some it’s a bit better than the U.S.; for many others, a lot worse. But if inequality is natural and universal, when can we say that it is unjust? And if injustice is everywhere, to what model of justice can we possibly aspire?

The Mathematical Theory of Injustice

One way to resolve the definitional problem is simply to assert that every measured outcome and every organization must mirror exactly the makeup of the general population. Failure to do so becomes, axiomatically, proof of injustice. If Black individuals are underrepresented in finance or women in technology, that’s all the evidence we should require that racism and sexism are rampant in those sectors. In this spirit, one of the recent executive orders urges the federal government to find new ways to “measure equity and capture the diversity of the American people.”

This mathematical theory of injustice is sometimes explicit but more often implied. The information sphere delivers a constant stream of studies and reports along the lines of “Why Minority Financial Planners Are Nearly Nonexistent” or “Ten years on, why are there still so few women in tech?” Such reports follow a ritualistic pattern. First, a number is given: in technology companies, women make up 17% of the workforce. The number is interesting and important enough to be called to our attention. It’s invariably bad news—an instance of underrepresentation. Positive disproportions are uninteresting, which is why Americans of East Asian or Indian origin, as groups, scarcely exist in the information sphere.

Though important, the number showing some disparity is never a starting point to more detailed analysis. Few questions are asked about causation or agency. The reasons for underrepresentation and the preferences of the groups involved hover mutely over the texts. In fact, the number is somehow an answer in itself. But what is the question? Helpful witnesses are interviewed who speak about “diversity,” “gender imbalance,” “bro culture” and so forth. Actual examples or mechanisms of injustice, however, are seldom spelled out. It’s all mathematical: women are 50% of the population but only 17% of the tech workforce. That number, 17%, becomes the answer to the question about sexism in technology.

What are we to make of this concept of injustice? To the extent that it hides behind implicit and unstated assumptions, the approach seems to me highly dishonest. When the subject is injustice, we should make clear where we stand. Is justice fulfilled only when women comprise 50% of every profession? If not, what are the grounds for acceptable exceptions? If so, is this an ideal to be strived for or a political demand to be implemented at once—and if the latter, how can this be achieved without harsh and sustained interventions of state power?

There’s a reason why such mathematical notions remain implicit. On first contact with an explicit proposal they disintegrate into incoherence. Concern fastens on the particular group under scrutiny, but once perspective shifts to the entire population, the quest for justice must degenerate into a zero-sum game—a sort of Hobbesian war of victim against victim, in which oppressed groups contend for our attention. Is hiring a Black man more important than hiring a woman? The answer can only be arbitrary. This means it will be determined by political clout and influence—the opposite of justice.

Finally, the fracturing of identity in the digital age has imposed a mind-boggling complexity on mathematical arguments. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of personal pronouns, each of them attached to some specific identity. Attempts to balance the numbers immediately slip into Alice in Wonderland logic. One of the Biden executive orders, for example, condemns the “unconsciously high levels of workplace discrimination, homelessness, and violence” faced by “transgender Black Americans.” The implication appears to be that a statistical measurement can be found for these calamities that is acceptably low.

Confusing numerology with justice is sterile but not harmless or devoid of real-world effects. For obvious reasons, it promotes the erosion of trust in the system: liberal democracy, as actually practiced, will never be good enough by the numbers. At the same time, unearned moral authority is bestowed on identitarian fixers who feed on government largesse and foundation grants. In neither case, I think it’s safe to say, are we dealing with the advancement of justice.

The Historical Theory of Injustice

A simple way to explain the mathematical inequalities of the present is to blame the conditions that formed our society and its institutions in the past. History, on this account, chronicles the uninterrupted feasting of human wolves upon the weak. Injustice, not truth, is the daughter of time, and it’s systemic, structural and inescapable.

This historical theory of injustice is very popular and widespread. There’s an academic version in the aptly named “critical theory,” a journalistic version in the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and a political version in the repudiations of young Black Lives Matter protesters. President Biden’s language in the executive orders, which bristles with references to “entrenched disparities,” “systemic racism” and the “historically underserved,” aims to add administrative punch to these fashionable views.

Marxism stands at the source of most radical interpretations of history, and that’s certainly the case here. Critical theory and Black Lives Matter exist in an ideological universe that might be described as “neo-Marxist.” But there are profound divergences from orthodox Marxism.

Instead of class war between capitalist and proletarian, you now have the unrelieved oppression by the privileged of their victims. Instead of economic determinism, you have a Nietzschean will to power. The new hero of the story is identity, not class, which leads to a random and confused toggling between the political and the existential: a confusion, I should add, that attaches itself to most “neo” movements today as more people demand from politics what they once would have obtained from religion and community. Disenchantment with Marxist-style revolution means there’s no redemption at the end of history. There can only be more oppression, conflict and victimhood.

Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863, just 11 days before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Image Credit: Alexander Gardner/Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Marxists, who were obsessed with history, proponents of the historical theory are singularly uninterested in the subject. This makes perfect sense. If history isn’t a code to be deciphered but a contaminating plague, the wisest course is to avoid any contact. In fact, history is experienced as a curse to be broken. Black Lives Matter warriors knocked down statues of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt after they ran out of Confederate memorials. A similar impulse inspired Nikkole Hannah-Jones’ essay for the 1619 Project, in which every figure of authority in US history, Lincoln included, was presented as a purveyor of injustice.

The perplexing question for me is, how is injustice determined from this perspective? If the main driver of human relations is the will to power, then we have stepped beyond good and evil. We can then speak of winners and losers but not of just and unjust. Yet it’s made very clear that winners are oppressors while losers are redeemers. According to Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” But the ideals of oppressors can be assumed to be oppressive, or else there’s a higher authority than naked power. If I were to say, for example, “The ideals of the Nazis were false until Jews fought to make them true,” I would commit a repulsive absurdity.

In practice, conventional morality is embraced as tacitly as it is fiercely repudiated in theory. Liberal democratic values, wrested out of the historical struggle against despotism, repurposed from the vast store of Christian doctrine, are taken for granted: liberty, dignity, compassion and, of course, equality. To a Marxist, such values are false, a camouflage for exploitation. For those who espouse the historical theory of injustice, they are true but insincerely held.

Once liberal values are introduced, however, we have a standard of moral progress—and it’s at this point that the historical theory begins to fall apart. The past, far from being the root of all evil, becomes the ground for the liberating forces the critics claim to embody. The present, instead of being trapped in systemic injustice, is only a moment in the evolution of an imperfect species toward an ambitious ideal of personal freedom. The prime mover of human relations is no longer the will to power but the unprecedented, and partly successful, attempt to transcend it.

It seems almost impolite to note that, on this score, progress has been striking. There are no kings. There are no aristocrats. There’s no slavery or Jim Crow. We are, regardless of our chosen identity, freer, wealthier, healthier, better educated, more mobile and connected than our ancestors. Such facts may be meaningless from some perspectives: to a Buddhist, all is illusion. But in the context of liberal values, the progress of the past two centuries is difficult to deny.

Injustice, of course, persists, but the possibility of moral progress reveals the nature of injustice under liberal democracy: it’s never systemic or insurmountable. The most useful orientation toward injustice is also made clear. Rather than rage at the past or declare war on history, we should labor to advance in the path of progress. We should inch toward perfection. And we should honor those large souls, such as Jefferson and Lincoln, who made the way wider and easier for the rest of us.

The Baseball Theory of Justice

Should every instance of inequality be labeled an injustice? That is a strange question to ask in an age that considers “one of our country’s greatest strengths” to be its “diversity”—a concept typically defined as recognizing and respecting our “individual differences.” Such differences are evidently the cause, or at least the expression, of inequality, but the ideal of diversity is to make us complementary rather than identical. To advance in the path of progress, every nation, community and company requires an enormous range of human attributes. Since none of us are big enough to do it all, the attributes must be distributed, unevenly, among the population.

As any fan of America’s pastime will tell you, baseball teams are built on the complementary principle. You need pitchers and defenders to prevent runs. You need big players who smack homers and small players who steal bases to score. A diverse and balanced team will go to the World Series. A team composed of perfectly equal players would be an absolute disaster—a loser. For this reason, the sport is fixated on statistics that measure and compare inequalities.

There are fashions in words as there are for clothes, but when we say “Everyone benefits from diversity,” we are, in truth, saying “Everyone benefits from inequality.”

Here we circle back to Jefferson and that troubling phrase in the Declaration of Independence. Is equality ever self-evident? I suppose we all enter into our moral lives on an equal plane. None of us is born a wolf or a sheep, and our destinies are equally inscrutable. Injustice, under our system, consists precisely of treating anyone, for any reason, as a wolf or a sheep from birth and so foreordaining their fate. The violation involves the freedom to become unequal in our own chosen way. Equality of individual rights—the historical gift of liberal democracy—protects us, as much as possible, from the herding instincts of those who wield social and political power as we pursue our divergent journeys.

Jefferson presumed that the outcomes would differ radically. Famously, he envisioned a “natural aristocracy” of individuals superior in talent but also in integrity, whom a wise electorate would empower to manage the affairs of the nation. We need only reflect on the wretched character of our current elites to conclude that this Jeffersonian dream, if it were ever realized, would become another saving grace of inequality.

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