I’m stuck in a bit of a dilemma over ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ I support it, of course, but I feel torn over what to say about it. On the one hand, as a supporter, and someone paid to think about things like ‘justice’, if I don’t make an effort to articulate what I think it’s about, I seem to be playing into the hands of those who accuse it of having no message beyond “smash capitalism and replace it with something nicer”.
On the other hand, if I try to say something I run several risks: Who told me I can speak for a movement of hundreds of thousands? And then it could too easily become long, elaborate, over-theorised, explaining how everything everywhere fits into my favoured framework. Or I might say something really stupid – I am an amateur, and about as good at detailed institutional design and political strategising as I am at carpentry or volleyball.
So what follows is an attempt to find some middle path between saying nothing and burdening a promising movement with one more philosophy student’s half-baked ill-edited manifesto. I’m throwing out this non-manifesto (it’s honestly not a manifesto) mainly to see if people agree with me behind the shared-but-sometimes-uninformative slogans.
Eight Points, Beginning with ‘Why Want More Economic Equality?’
1) Firstly, economic equality promotes equality of consumption, and this promotes net happiness, due to the diminishing marginal utility of money.
(That is, the same resources can do more to improve people’s lives if distributed equally. If you lack food, shelter, security, or healthcare, then the money to pay for that can be a huge benefit, whereas if you’ve already met all your pressing needs, and spend the same money on comparative luxuries, you won’t benefit as much.
This way of putting the point is fairly abstract, but is implicit in complaints about poverty and related suffering – the suffering of the poor is objectionable because it’s avoidable, i.e. because we could avoid it without inflicting equal suffering on someone else.)
2) Secondly, economic equality promotes equality of power, and this promotes better and fairer collective outcomes.
(Money gives power in obvious political senses, campaign funds etc., but also in changing the bargaining positions in lots of individual dealings – making employees less dependent on employers, and non-working partners less dependent on working partners, allowing people to respond more effectively if they’re abused or mistreated.
This also affects large-scale but unplanned market outcomes. If people have money to spend, there’s an incentive to meet their needs; if they have no money, then there’s no incentive. And if people have so much money that the whole economy depends on them not going bankrupt, then there’s a powerful incentive for others to make sure they don’t go bankrupt.)
3) Thirdly, economic equality expresses and symbolises equality of value. Two people who have equal ‘human dignity’ should have similar chances to live happy and comfortable lives.
(This could be taken as a matter of moral principle, or simply as a question of psychology: that people a likely to be less alienated, less inclined to anti-social behaviour, etc. when their economic position makes them feel respected – at least, under some cultural conditions)
4) Fourthly, right now greater economic equality will tend to promote overall economic growth.
(Because economies are governed by extensive feedback, more money, services, and jobs for the majority of the population means more money for them to spend, more jobs in providing them with things to spend that money on, etc.
Of course the money has to come from somewhere, most likely either borrowing or increased progressive taxation. But both of these are fine. If funded by government borrowing (i.e. if an economic stimulus) then there are more goods and services in circulation, borrowed at extremely low present interest rates, which will be easier to pay back if growth raises state revenues and reduces state expenditures.
If funded by taxation (i.e. if a redistribution of wealth), it still has a net stimulating effect because poorer people tend to spend more of their money, while firms are at present spending and investing little.)
5) Consequently, the requirements of general economic growth presently coincide with the principled considerations of egalitarian philosophy, forming an powerful case for measures to increase economic equality.
(Such measures would, in particular, include redistribution of wealth downwards, increased provision of public services available to all, increased organisational power and legal rights for unions and workers generally, and increased restrictions on actions by wealthy individuals and companies, especially financial ones, that might enrich them at the expense of others.)
6) In spite of the above points, the general trend of political change across the Western world is the opposite.
(That is, governments are either leaving inequality untouched, or increasing it, by cutting public services, providing the rich with advantageous tax regimes, etc. There does not at present appear, nor has there in recent years appeared, a major electoral option that would reverse this trend.)
7) Consequently we can infer that for some reason the present political system of the Western world will not act to promote economic inequality unless compelled to so.
(The ‘some reason’ might be the vices of individual politicians, the prevalence of right-wing ideology, the political influence of powerful economic actors, or some subtle combination. What is widespread at the occupations, it seems, is not an analysis of why the state serves the rich, merely a sense that it does.)
8) Hence it is necessary for a social force supporting greater economic equality to be formed. The congregation of large numbers of people in symbolically important locations can serve as one step in the formation of such a force.