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.
* 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: More on Equality

Posts in this Series. For those interested, I update this post from time to time with additional resources that help flesh out what may be unfamiliar ideas.

The text for this and the previous post is Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter Equality in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, available online through your public library. In the previous post we saw that Anderson describes equality in terms of social relations rather than in terms of material distribution. Relational equality is opposed to social hierarchies. She describes three forms of social hierarchy, command, standing, and esteem, and tests them against the pragmatic values of the good, the righteous or just, and the virtuous or moral. She concludes that these hierarchies are neither good, just, nor virtuous. Next she takes up the arguments of defendes of hierarchy.

Proponents of social hierarchy cannot justify the extremes of social hierarchy, slavery, serfdom, peonage. So they try to defend the less egregious cases. In evaluating these arguments, it’s helpful to think of concrete situations, rather than mere abstractions, because the actual practice of thee social hierarchies has direct impact on real humans. These hierarchies exist in government and other institutions, public and private. Anderson hersolf applies these ideas to the world of work in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), 2019, Princeton University Press.

Defenders of social hierarchies argue that command hierarchies are the only solution to certain kinds of social problems. Specifically, they argue that social order can only be maintained “… under a division of labor in which those competent to rule issue commands and others obey.” Egalitarians point out that almost everyone has the ability to participate in a democratic form of government. There is no obvious way to select those capable of command, certainly not on typical grounds, which she describes as “inscriptive group identities such as such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality. In the real world, these defenses are nothing more than legitimating existing hierarchies of dominance.
Defenders of hierarchies of esteem and standing argue first, that there are differences in virtue among people; some people are more deserving than others, justifying differences in esteem and standing. Second these defenders argue that differences in esteem and standing act as incentives for more productive workers. Following Rousseau, Anderson writes almost poetically:

// Equal citizenship status in a republic provides such a ground. When fellow citizens meet in the public square, they meet as co-sovereigns—as co-creators and guarantors of the republic that makes them free and independent. Each can stand erect before everyone else; no one has to bow and scrape before another. Everyone basks in the glory of the republic they jointly sustain. This basal equality of esteem, of the free citizen and the recognition of that status with all its rights and dignity by fellow citizens, constitutes the essential background condition for the practice of republican virtue*. Thus, genuine virtue requires an underlying equality of esteem.**//

Anderson sees no reason for hierarchies of standing. Rewarding achievement with special material benefits, special privileges or exemptions from constraints binding others leads directly to people seeking those benefits directly instead of by cultivating virtue.

The danger of all three hierarchies is that the holders of high positions will use them for personal benefit, and will seek to pass them on to their offspring or their favorites regardless of talent or virtue, directly, as we see politicians handing their positions to their children, or indirectly, as by establishing standards for the hierarchies that favor their children or protégés. I hardly need to provide examples. Worse, once people become used to their position in these hierarchies, some of them will exploit those below them without compunction, and with no accountability.


1. Anderson says that these egalitarian arguments are better for showing the failures of the current system that for creating a new one. She points out that democracies have the potential to overcome these hierarchies, but only in practice can we find the proper means to do so.

In general, pragmatists argue that the proof of value is in the doing. Each solution engenders its own problems, problems that are rarely foreseeable, so the role of the people as an electorate is to seek solutions to the new problems or to take other routes to the desired goal. There are no permanent solutions to these problems, only approximations, best guesses, and constant evaluation.

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in this sense. She argues in favor of democracy, which enables people to select their leaders and creates means to hold those leaders accountable. In that setting, the exercise of power is not domination: the people can throw out and otherwise punish bad leaders. For example, the US Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice-President, and all civil officers, which includes all judges.

Social hierarchies resist change other than those benefit the entrenched dominant class. They are static. At its best democracy is dynamic. It is never complete. It is a project, a human project. People decide on what is important, and find ways to move toward those goals. There is a kind of organized conflict inherent in democracy, as people urge different goals and different paths to those goals. That conflict is evidence of life, and is only a threat to those who benefit unfairly and unreasonably from the existing arrangement.

2, Anderson argues for relational equality over equality of material distribution. But she is obvious that relational equality requires some material redistribution. That redistribution is subject to social determination, but should include at least sufficient food, clothing and shelter to maintain personal dignity, open access to all educational and job opportunities, additional assistance to those who have not had that access in the past, and special attention to those who are disadvantaged by illness, genetics and other causes beyond their control.

4. This piece by Anderson is beautifully written and quite clear. I have not attempted to cover all the richness of her argument.

*This term relates to the Roman Republic, not to the US party of that name. I discuss this point in an earlier post in this series.

** Richard Rorty makes similar poetic arguments in Achieving Our Country following Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. See the additional materials in the Introduction and Index To Posts.