The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, has been getting a lot of discussion of late. Most of the discussion has focused on the empirical claims it advances. But over at OurKingdom, Rupert Read has a post exploring what he sees as the philosophical implications of the book (responding to Gerry Hassan's review ).
According to Read The Spirit Level empirically refutes John Rawls's political philosophy, specifically Rawls's 'difference principle.' He tells us that he's talked to Richard Wilkinson about it, and Wilkinson agrees that the findings in The Spirit Level do indeed provide an empirical refutation of the 'difference principle'.
'For me as a philosopher, the thing about The Spirit Level that is most exciting is that as a study of the pervasive harms of inequality it strongly suggests that John Rawls's 'difference principle', which says that inequalities are OK provided that they materially benefit the worst off, a principle that has dominated political philosophy for 40 years, is simply wrong. Empirically wrong.
Which means that put into action ‘the difference principle’ will create a worse society, across a whole index of measures. Perhaps surprisingly, it will make virtually everybody, and certainly the worst off, worse off. (Or at least: worse off than they could be if an alternative way of ‘organising inequalities’ – a more egalitarian way - were settled upon.) Even if they have more money or more things (are ‘materially better-off’), this will not translate into an improved quality of life: on the contrary.
In sum: it is now possible for the first time to show that the difference principle (and, by extension, liberal political philosophy whether or not of the ‘trickle-down’ variety) makes the worst-off on balance worse off, and this can I think reasonably be taken to constitute an empirical refutation of the claim that it could possibly be just.'
My first thought is that there is something intrinsically odd in the idea that the difference principle can be 'empirically wrong'.
Rawls's difference principle is a normative principle. As Read says, the principle holds that inequality is justified only if it works to improve the position of those who are worst-off under the ensuing inequality. Inequalities aren't justifiable merely because they increase overall GNP or overall welfare, or because they raise the average level of income or welfare (or whatever else one thinks matters fundamentally from a distributive point of view): they must improve the position of the worst-off.
However, the difference principle does not say that inequalities are justified because they work to the benefit of the worst-off. It does not assert the truth of any 'trickle-down' theory.
The principle is entirely agnostic, as a normative principle, on the empirical question of how far economic inequalities do or don't, in fact, work to the benefit of the worst-off. It just says that, if they are to be justified, then they must work out this way.
It is mysterious, then, as to how the principle could be empirically refuted. To be refuted in this sense, it would have to have make, or rely, on a specific empirical claim about how inequality actually improves the position of the worst-off. But, as just explained, the principle is entirely agnostic on such empirical matters.
As Read points out, the evidence marshalled in the The Spirit Level suggests that high levels of economic inequality make the position of the worst-off even worse. If this is the case, then the difference principle supports an unequivocal condemnation of these inequalities...because, according to the evidence, they worsen the position of the worst-off.
But have I perhaps missed Read's key point?
In the second and third paragraphs of the above quote, Read rightly notes the distinction between looking at the position of the worst-off in narrowly materialist terms (income and wealth) versus looking at it in a broader way. And in his first paragraph he specifically defines the difference principle as requring that inequalities 'materially benefit the worst off'. So perhaps the argument he has in mind goes something like this:
(1) the difference principle calls for inequality in income and wealth to be set at whatever level works to maximise the income and wealth holdings of the group which has least income and wealth;
(2) this principle would call for a quite high level of income/wealth inequality;
(3) The Spirit Level shows that societies with this level of income/wealth inequality - the level of inequality called for in (1) above - leave the worst-off worse off in an overall sense: although they have more income and wealth than in more materially equal societies, this is cancelled out by their having much worse psychological well-being, e.g., diminished self-respect;
(4) therefore, The Spirit Level gives us reason to reject the difference principle.
However, as a basis for rejecting the difference principle, this has two problems.
First, even if we accept as accurate the narrowly materialistic characterisation of the difference principle in (1), it is not obvious that this principle would in fact mandate such a high level of income/wealth inequality as to have the negative effects charted in The Spirit Level. Once again, the principle as such is agnostic on the empirical question of how much inequality actually is needed to satisfy the principle. It could be that the principle, even as understood in (1) above, is satisfied only in societies with very high levels of equality in income/wealth - societies which escape the negative effects of inequality discussed in The Spirit Level.
But more importantly, the difference principle is not simply about income and wealth. The principle, as defined by Rawls, is based on a pluralistic understanding of citizens' interests which certainly includes income and wealth but which also includes what Rawls call the 'social bases of self-respect.'
The principle calls on us to assess the position of the worst-off - to conceptualise who is 'worst-off' - not only in terms of material goods but in terms of how social institutions affect self-respect. So even if an unequal distribution of income and wealth does improve the position of the worst-off as measured simply in material terms, this would not necessarily be justified, under the difference principle, if the material inequality also damages the self-respect of the worst-off. The kind of psychological harms from inequality that the authors of The Spirit Level are concerned to highlight are amongst the things that the difference principle calls on us to be alert for in judging how material inequalities affect the position of the worst-off.
In short, The Spirit Level does not refute Rawls's difference principle.
Rather, it provides evidence that societies have to be pretty egalitarian in economic terms if they are to satisfy this principle.
A final point. There is a danger for egalitarians in overinvesting in The Spirit Level. It makes a strong case that economic inequalities have negative effects on the well-being of a society (and not just its materially poorest members). But reservations about its claims are by no means confined to the right; see, for example, Claude Fischer's essay in Boston Review. And what if, in fact, further research showed that all of the book's claims are false? Would this imply that existing levels of income and wealth inequality are fine?
I certainly don't think so. That's because I think a great deal of existing material inequality is intrinsically unfair, independent of whether or not it lowers overall or average or majority well-being. And perhaps some of the reasons why such inequality is unfair are those set out in the work of John Rawls?