Friday, April 26, 2013

Levelling Down

A common charge egalitarians face is that they seek to ‘level down’ the society by imposing excessive handicaps and/or pursue an agenda of radical redistribution of property that in sum is detrimental to human flourishing. The logic of the levelling down approach is that given the choice between equality at a lower level, or inequalities at a higher level, the former is preferable to the latter, even if it unreasonably diminishes the holdings of some. For this reason, levelling down is feared because it can create a divisive and envious politics that harms trust, civility, and the stability of a society. The nightmare version of this view has been presented in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergerson, and has been seen in practice in some radical Marxist parties agenda’s, where the leveling down as taken the form of property and social destruction under the guise of collectivization.

An unnecessary amount of philosophical effort has been spent trying to allay these fears. This is because the objection is an argumentative red herring and an intellectual wild goose chase in service of political rhetoric. Most clear thinking persons would agree that levelling down is bad, because it dismantles productive capacities themselves as opposed to redistributing the by-products of production. In terms of handicaps there seems no good reason why a society would want to retard the capacities of its members, or waste their talents. If we cannot make the sick healthy, there is no good to be had from making the healthy sick. Frankly, it is anti-human. Lastly leveling down does not seek to balance the responsibility and rights of producers. While acknowledging that there have been cases of radical redistribution and destruction, these are aberrations, and memorable because they are not the norm.

With this said, one also has to admit that much of the rhetorical use of the leveling down objection seems directed to create scare tactics thus invoking a moral panic and reactionary stance to an egalitarian agenda. Bluntly, it is not the most intellectually interesting, or politically satisfying objection to egalitarianism. Besides, if egalitarianism is understood as a normative moral claim of the ideal accord between persons, as argued by Williams in the preceding chapter, then the hysteria regarding levelling down makes no sense. It simply cashes out as moral impartiality, and a lack of special treatment based on contingent factors. The only people who would object to that presentation are egotistical Sun-Kings.

We can avoid the charge by following those like Mason, who for instance, claim that equality must be balanced with other values in a distinctive specified manner as a way to avoid charges of being arbitrary implemented.[i] Or Larry Temkin, who takes the following position:

I, for one, believe that inequality is bad. But do I really believe that there is some respect in which a world where only some are blind is worse than one where all are? Yes. Does this mean I think it would be better if we blinded everybody? No. Equality is not all that matters.[ii]

As Temkim’s remarks attempt to make clear, efforts to promote equality are motivated by desires to improve the condition of the many, not decrease the condition of the few. Proponents of leveling down, and those scare mongering using its name, have little respect for this spirit.

[i] Mason, A., (2001) Egalitarianism and the Levelling Down Objection, Analysis 61(3), pp246-254
[ii] Temkin, L. S. (1993) Inequality , New York: Oxford University Press. p282