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Inequality In Social Relationships

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

In the last post in this series, Freedom And Inequality, I discussed the societal distribution of freedom as described by Elizabeth Anderson. In this post, I do the same with her description of equality. [1] Anderson says that egalitarians think of inequality as it relates to social hierarchies, as opposed to material distribution which is the usual understanding of the word. She discusses three forms of social hierarchy: domination, esteem and standing.

Domination

The most obvious form of social hierarchy is the hierarchy of authority. These are arrangements in which one person has the right to arbitrary control over the actions of another. Most domination hierarchies are not absolute, either in the allowed arbitrariness of the superior or the powerlessness of the subservient person. For example, an employer can harass an employ with weird hours, or unreasonable demands, but cannot hit the employee; and the employee can at theoretically walk out.

Dominance hierarchies are everywhere in our society. The wealthiest people have high positions in these hierarchies, but it is useful to note that most of that day-to-day authority is delegated to subordinates in long well-defined chains. The people at the top may not be as free to operate without accountability as their positions would seem to allow. For example, the CEO of a giant corporation is constrained by the board of directors, and by the need to operate through immediate subordinates who may or may not agree to act as directed. [2] That is just as true lower down the chain of authority. People at any level may be in a position to abuse those below them in the chain. The chain of authority closely mirrors incomes at each level.

In most other areas of society there are dominance hierarchies. In civil society the police are effectively the superiors of certain classes of people, mostly lower income people, and people of color. In Churches, there may be control through a group of members, as the Deacons in a Baptist Church, or the Preacher may seize control. The members of the Church are subject to the direction of the leaders, in many cases with the sole option of dropping out or being excommunicated. In social groups, such as tennis clubs and condominium buildings, there are similar hierarchies, with greater or lesser accountability. In general, I’d guess that the poorer one is, the less ability one has to dominate others.

Esteem

I usually think of esteem as a positive feeling. For example, I hold LeBron James in high esteem, not simply because he is a great athlete, but because it’s obvious he is a self-controlled person, an unusually disciplined person, who has worked extremely hard to excel, both physically and mentally. And as far as I know, he is a good husband and father, and a good member of society. He has earned esteem as a good person. Of course, we can also hold people in low esteem. For example, I hold Kristjen Nielsen in low esteem. She received every advantage society has to offer and used her power to cage children and separate them from their families forever.

Most of us can earn esteem from others. In our work lives, our colleagues may esteem our contributions. In our churches, the choir singers are esteemed for the work they put in to enhance services, as are the flower committee members. In clubs and condos, the people who are willing to devote the time to manage are esteemed and their service is frequently gratefully acknowledged. This kind of esteem is open to practically everyone, without regard to income or wealth.

Rich people do not receive much of this kind of esteem. Even their donations of money are suspect, either because of the source of their money or because they seem to be trying to buy esteem, which must be freely given to be of value. That’s why people question the political acts of celebrities that are all talk and no action. Compare that with the acts of George Clooney or Jane Fonda. [3]

Anderson uses the word esteem somewhat differently:

The second type of objectionable social inequality is hierarchies of esteem. In these systems, those occupying inferior positions are stigmatized — subject to publicly authoritative stereotypes that represent them as proper objects of dishonor, contempt, disgust, fear, or hatred on the basis of their group identities and hence properly subject to ridicule, shaming, shunning, segregation, discrimination, persecution, and even violence. In some cases, subordinate group members may be allowed to participate in mainstream organizations and benefits but only on the condition that they repress, hide, or abandon their stigmatized identities—for example, their sexual orientation, religion, language, customary dress, or ethnically distinctive name. Because esteem is positional, public representations of socially stigmatized groups are always shaped in invidious contrast to the stereotypes ascribed to those possessing honored group identities. Quoted from her paper Equality.

On this scale, the poorer one is, the more likely one is to be low on the esteem scale. In the US, poverty is often seen as a personal failing. This view is internalized by most of the people so stigmatized. [4] Of course, there is a modest number of people among despised groups who have money, and plenty of it. That, however, is not sufficient to drive an increase in esteem for the class. For example, New York cops broke NBA athlete Theo Sefolosha’s leg and ended his season in a ridiculously aggressive pretend arrest. Obviously the cops held him in low esteem, but the city settled for $4 million; he donated a substantial part to a non-profit that trains public defenders. It seems to me that esteem is not strictly related to income or wealth for people in the despised classes, but for some classes, say white men, esteem is closely correlated to wealth and income.

Standing

Anderson describes this as the right to have one’s interests considered in decisions that affect one. Standing is closely correlated with wealth and income, but for people in classes held in low esteem, the general level is lower, as is the case with esteem. In general, the wealthy use their high positions in the three kinds of socisal hierarchies and their wealth to assure their continued domination. [5]

Equality Before the State

For the most part, I have looked Anderson’s hierarchies from the standpoint of individual members of society. Here’s how Anderson characterizes these hierarchies from the standpoint of the state:

Egalitarians oppose such hierarchies and aim to replace them with institutions in which persons relate to one another as equals. For example, they want members of society to be treated as equals by the state and in institutions of civil society (standing); to be recognized as bearing equal dignity and respect (esteem); to have equal votes and access to political participation in democratic states (authority). Each of these conceptions of relational equality is complex and implicates numerous features of the social setting.

Conclusion

Anderson looks at the three categories of freedom and the three social hierarchies mostly from the standpoint of the broader society. In this and my last post in this series, I try to see the relationships between these categories and wealth and income. As I worked my way through them, I came to think these categories have broader meanings, and some of that comes through, I hope. They apply not just in the broad view of society, but at every level of society right down to our daily lives. Each of us can work out for ourselves our approximate place in these categories, and we can see how they influence our social interactions and our sense of our place in society. In the next post I look at two larger implications of the disparities revealed through these categories and their impact on individuals and society.
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[1] Anderson takes this up in her essay Equality in the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Perhaps it’s available through your library.

[2] On the other hand, the CEO might just dump anyone who doesn’t agree to act as directed. Trump is an example of this kind of abusive use of authority. The result in corporations is usually an economic disaster. In government, it’s worse.

[3] Fun fact: Fonda spoke at an anti-war rally on Armed Forces Day in Fayetteville, NC, near Ft. Bragg, in May 1970; she also spoke at a rally at a meeting house of the organizers, GIs United Against The War In Indochina, the night before. I was there for both. The army was afraid, and cancelled its Armed Forces Day ceremonies. You can find a description here at .pdf page 9, and a fascinating discussion of the connection between GI resistance to the war and the creation of the all volunteer army in Chapter 3. The underground newspaper of GIs United, Bragg Briefs, carried stories about the M-16 rally in the June 1970 issue, available here. This paper is a marvelous example of resistance to the military during wartime.

[4] See, e.g., Jennifer Silva’s book Coming Up Short. See also this interesting piece.

[5] I discuss one form of this in a short series on the French scholar Pierre Bourdieu. Regrettably I did not index this series; Here’s the last one on symbolic violence. See also Oligarchy Inside The US? and other works by Jeffrey Winters and Benjamin Page.

Inequality Of Freedom

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

I have updated the Index linked above with a brief description of the end of Chapter 2 and the remaining four chapters of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government. As I note there, two of the comments are disappointing: the commenters largely ignore Anderson’s views of freedom and equality as they relate to the workplace, choosing to argue that workers don’t really care about these issues, or are satisfied with the current arrangement or that corporations don’t actually trammel on workers. This seems remarkably short-sighted in light of recent resurgence of worker actions, such as the GM strike and the Chicago Teachers Strike. In the GM case, the union won the end of the two-track wage system. The Chicago Teachers strike was notable in the solidarity among the teachers and the other employees of the school system, and the parents and the kids (shout-out to my daughter’s family!).

Anderson’s definitions of freedom and equality give us a completely different way to analyze our society. Disparities in both have created the material inequality that is wrecking our society. I begin by looking at these disparities in practice. Recall that in Anderson’s terms freedom can mean negative freedom, positive freedom or freedom from domination.* Inequality refers to differences in social relationships: differences in standing, authority and esteem. I don’t know how to quantify these categories, so let’s look at them again and ask where different people stand. In each case, as a general matter, minorities have less freedom and less equality in each of the six categories, in some cases, substantially less.

1. Negative Freedom, or freedom from interference. This refers to the ability of a person to use the force of law to protect their actions or their property. This is the only freedom economists, especially neoliberal economists, consider relevant to their practice. It’s clear that rich people have the most negative freedom. They have lots of property, and the right to bar others from using it. Their wealth gives them a very broad scope of actions, for example travel, general consumption, and political action. As we go down the wealth scale, property and the range of possible actions drops. Among the lowest income groups, there is little property, and thus little negative freedom, and the scope of actions is much more limited, especially because they are easily excluded from all except public property.

Wealthy people enjoy negative freedom created for their benefit. They can join exclusive clubs that keep the rest of us out so they can play at golf, shoot skeet, eat among their wealth peers, and gamble. They go to exclusive parties, where private security guards keep the rest of us away. They have their own airport terminals at our public airports for their private jets and helicopters. That too declines as we move down the wealth scale.

Of course, we all have some negative freedoms. For example, we can all own guns, and in many places carry them with us. No one can stop us from using those guns to “stand out ground” in some states. That means that for some people the consequence of negative freedom is death or injury by gun, interfering with their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

2. Positive Freedom, or range of opportunities. There is almost no limit to the opportunities available to the rich. As we move down the wealth incline, opportunities gradually decline. Consider the different educations the rich have had, compared to the educations of the less well off, and working class and poor people. Think about the jobs available to those who can stumble out of elite private schools with degrees, compared to those with good grades at state universities. Then think about the working class kids trying to get decent training at for-profit trade schools, which load them up with student debt.

One way to measure positive freedom is social mobility. Here’s a comprehensive study by Raj Chetty and his colleagues of social mobility in the US. Here’s one of the charts in that study, showing relative social mobility estimating the probability that a child born to parents in the lowest quintile of income will attain an income in the top quintile compared to such chances in other countries.**

Here’s another chart from Chetty, showing the likelihood that a child will exceed the income of her parents. This chart is especially depressing, because we used to think that this was proof of the excellence of the US economy.

Note that the y-axis on this chart is shortened by dropping out the bottom 40%.

This more difficult study calculates IGE:

The most widely used measure of intergenerational economic mobility is intergenerational income elasticity (IGE), a coefficient obtained via a regression model that captures the statistical connection between parents’ income and their children’s income in later life.

They apply it across the income distribution, trying to estimate the effect of parental income on their children’s incomes. Here’s how they describe their results:

We estimate an IGE value for the pooled sample of 0.47 at the mean of the income distribution, which is in line with the literature. More importantly, we observe a U-shaped pattern in the parental income influence on children’s income. Thus, IGE is highest at the lower quantiles of the distribution (0.6 at the 5th to 20th percentiles), falls to a minimum of around 0.38 at the 70th percentile, and then increases again up to almost 0.5 at the 90th to 95th percentiles.

Loosely, this means that most kids whose parents are in the top and bottom quintiles of income are likely to remain in those quintiles, while more kids in the middle three quintiles may move up or down.*** If this is right, poorer kids have the least positive freedom, and middle class kids have more, but have a good chance of falling in social mobility, and rich kids have the most positive freedom, and are protected from failure.

3. Freedom From Domination. The more money one has, the more free one is from domination by others. At the top of the wealth scale people are generally free from domination, and through their influence in the political system, they avoid much restrictive legislation and benefit from favorable legislation.**** Wealthy people often escape accountability for actions that would incarcerate others, or result in civil damages. For example, after the Great Crash for an obvious example: not only did Wall Streeters avoid criminal exposure for causing the Great Crash, they got to keep almost all of the money.

As Anderson documents in her book, average working people don’t have that kind of freedom from domination in the work place; although employers vary in their use or abuse of that power. In other aspects of their private lives, they are able to avoid domination if they are white. That’s less true of people of color, who are easily singled out for hassling by law enforcement, security personnel in private spaces, and others with local authority.

Wealthy people have the ability to dominate many others simply by virtue of their wealth. Among the great middle, there are some opportunities for domination, both in the workplace and to a lesser extent in other private groups, The poorer one is, the fewer opportunities there are to dominate others.*****

I’ll take up social hierarchies in the next post.
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* These terms are discussed in earlier posts in this series. See the Index at the top of this post.

** In 2017, the top of the lowest quintile was $24,000, and the bottom of the top quintile was $127,000. Note the use of income as a proxy for social mobility. Education is often studied as a proxy, with similar and expected results. Education may measure an important aspect of human flourishing not captured by income studies.

*** This material is complicated, largely because of the use of statistical techniques I’m not familiar with, and I am wary of it because it so closely matches what I would expect, creating a risk of confirmation bias.

**** Here’s a discussion of the Gilens and Page study of the legislative preferences of the rich.

***** I exclude families, where men can get away with domination.

Freedom And Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

Introduction and Posts in This Series with additional resources

The first two posts in this series discuss the idea of freedom from domination as used by Elizabeth Anderson in a chapter she wrote for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, which you can find online through your public library, I hope. With this post, I begin looking at the concept of equality as she uses it. In subsequent posts I will examine her thinking on managing the relation between freedom and equality.

Anderson says that the type of equality relevant for political purposes is relational equality, as opposed to material equality. Material equality is the idea that we should all have the same quantity of resources, and no one actually advocates this, or anything like it, despite right-wing shrieks about socialism.

Relational equality is defined against social hierarchy. To get a better understanding of this idea, I turn to another chapter by Anderson, Equality, published in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Anderson argues for an understanding of equality as an “ideal of social relations”. In contemporary thought, including not least contemporary philosophical thought, equality is considered as a principle governing distribution of economic goods. The discussion is often based on the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Rawls has been interpreted as requiring some level of equality of distribution, leading to tedious (my word) discussions of what, how much, and who is deserving of such redistribution.

Anderson argues that relational equality is a much more accurate description of what egalitarians actually work for, what they actually are doing.

A Side Note On Method

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey. Another of Dewey’s disciples, Richard Rorty, wrote

Dewey’s philosophy is a systematic attempt to temporalize everything, to leave nothing fixed. This means abandoning the attempt to find a theoretical frame of reference within which to evaluate proposals for the human future.*

This means precisely that human beings created all the moral and ethical principles that we use to measure good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, decent and indecent, acceptable and unacceptable, edible or inedible, taboo and prized acts, included and excluded groups, and every other pairing of measures. Every social structure is created by humans. There is no external, no objective set of principles for any of these purposes. There are only human beings struggling with themselves and others to structure their mutual existence. It means that human beings create their own future.

That’s not to say that we don’t have standards for making decisions. We most certainly do. But we have to recognize that others are perfectly capable of forming other coherent standards that disagree with ours, and that living with others necessitates accommodation to their plans. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have absolutes in our lives, but it may mean that we do not attempt to impose those on others.

Anderson works from the principle that social choices are matters of argument among members of society. She says that choosing between relational equality and social hierarchies is a matter of values. She sets out the values she thinks are important and argues about which is superior in terms of those values. This kind of argument appears regularly in her work.

Social Hierarchy

By “social hierarchy”, I refer to durable group inequalities that are systematically sustained by laws, norms, or habits.

Anderson adds that social hierarchies are durable, they persist through generations. They are group-based: one group is superior, the other inferior. They are typically based on broad categories, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship and so on. She identifies three kinds of social hierarchy, hierarchies of command, hierarchies of esteem, and hierarchies of standing.

In hierarchies of command, the inferior class is subject to arbitrary and unaccountable control by the superior class. The inferior class must obey the orders of the superior class without questioning. Inferiors cannot exercise their liberty without the assent of the superior class. This is the opposite of the non-domination I discussed in the two previous posts in this series. This hierarchy is undone when the inferior class is able to govern itself directly or democratically.

In hierarchies of esteem the superior class stigmatizes the inferior class. The inferior class is marked for disdain, ridicule, humiliation and even violent persecution.

In hierarchies of standing, the interests and voices of the superior class are given great weight in social decision-making, legislation, and enforcement of laws and rules. The interests of the inferior class are given little or no weight in such matters.

Values

Anderson follows John Dewey’s scheme of values in the following passage.

The realm of values is divided into three great domains: the good, the right, and the virtuous. Each is defined in relation to the perspective from which people make judgments about each type. Judgments of goodness are made from a first-person perspective—that is, from the perspective of one enjoying, remembering, or anticipating the enjoyment of some object, individually or in concert with others (“us”). The experience of goodness—the sign or evidence of goodness—is one’s felt attraction to an appealing object. Judgments of moral rightness are made from a second-person perspective, in which one person asserts the authority (in his or her own person or on behalf of another) to make claims on another—to demand that the other respect the rights or pay due regard to the interests of the claimant and to hold the other accountable for doing so. Judgments of moral wrongness, therefore, are essentially expressible as complaints by or on behalf of a victim that are addressed to agents who are held responsible for wrongdoing. The experience of encountering a valid claim of rightness is that of feeling required to do something, of being commanded by a legitimate authority. Judgments of virtue are made from the third-person perspective of an observer and judge of people’s conduct and underlying dispositions. The experience of virtue is one’s felt approval or admiration of people’s character or powers as expressed in their conduct. Citations omitted.

This is a lot to process. Perhaps the first step is to try to apply these ideas to your personal thinking about social issues. Consider the family separation policy applied to asylum seekers by Trump (Miller). When I think of it in terms of the good, the right and the virtuous, I immediately see that it makes me want to act, to demand justice. It makes me despise the people who instigated this policy and the people who carry it out. Therefore I perceive it as neither right (just) nor virtuous. I also see that it is evil, the opposite of good; it doesn’t make me happy, it makes me angry and hostile.

On the other hand, to judge from Twitter and what I see of Fox news on comedy shows, there are plenty of people who don’t see it that way. Is it possible to have a discussion of values with such people? Is there an argument that the policy is good or right or virtuous? Am I prepared to admit such arguments might be worth considering?

Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

This is the central argument of Anderson’s chapter. Anderson claims that egalitarians argue that social hierarchies are bad on all three counts. In general, social hierarchies are not right ( meaning they are unjust) towards the people placed in the inferior class and thus to society as a whole. They are morally wrong (virtue) towards both superior and inferior classes because it devalues the human worth and potential of the inferior class and inflates the worth of the superior class. And they are vicious (not good) because they treat the ideologies supporting this class distinction as good when we can see that those ideologies are corrupt.

In the case of esteem hierarchies, egalitarians argue that all human beings are entitled to a basic level of esteem and equal access to higher levels of esteem. As to hierarchies of standing, egalitarians argue that all humans should be treated equally before the law, and should have a basal level of standing in other settings.

With respect to command hierarchies, egalitarians argue that the primary justification is the idea that some humans are fit to rule and other are fit only to follow. Egalitarians say that all humans possess a basic level of self-government sufficient to enable them to participate in decisions about their lives and work, and “…entitle them to reject systems in which others wield unaccountable power over them.”

These ideas may not be comfortable. The arguments may seem unanchored, because there isn’t a Ten Commandments or any other seemingly objective standard. I’ll have other comments in the next post.

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*Rorty, Achieving Our Country, p. 20. This is a great book, an antidote to the despair that alternates with cynicism that infects the American left. I may do a series on it, but it’s easy to read, barely theoretical and mostly an impassioned argument for hope for the future based on the best ideas of the American Project.