If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?
At the suggestion of Matthew Boudway, I recently picked up G. A. Cohen’s If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? I’m glad that I did. Besides having a superb title, Cohen’s book is perhaps the most philosophically sophisticated, morally persuasive analysis of inequality that I’ve ever read.
If You’re an Egalitarian… is a compilation of the Gifford Lectures that Cohen delivered in 1996. The book—part memoir, part intellectual history, part political and economic treatise—is difficult to describe. After a brief examination of the problems raised by the “formation of conviction”—how we come to believe the things that we believe, even when we realize that they lack a rational basis—Cohen moves on to a description of his own upbringing. In the second chapter, Cohen, who died in 2009, remembers a childhood spent “in a working-class communist family in a communist community in the 1940s in Montreal.” He muses on the paradoxes of growing up “both Jewish and antireligious,” speculating on how his own adult commitments were formed by the place, time, and family into which he was born. (Politically, Cohen is a socialist; religiously, he is an agnostic who respects the moral contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition.)
The autobiographical bits of If You’re an Egalitarian… are beautifully, often humorously done. There are passages, as when Cohen describes lying to his fellow Jewish classmates about having had a bar-mitzvah, that could have come out of a Woody Allen movie. But the real strength of Cohen’s book lies in its more philosophical parts. Or, maybe more accurately, one of the joys of the autobiographical bits is to see just how much philosophical and political ideas can mean in a life.
The majority of If You’re an Egalitarian… considers how three competing traditions treat the problem of inequality. First, Cohen examines Marxism, which sees inequality disappearing as an inevitable result of the historical dialectic: once capitalism has provided such material abundance that competition is unnecessary, the capitalist society will sublate into the communist society. Next, he looks at political liberalism, specifically the strand of contemporary liberalism associated with the late political theorist John Rawls. According to this political philosophy, Cohen writes, “delivering equality is a task not of class struggle (crowned by a future abundance) but of constitution-making”; inequality goes away not because history says that it will, but because political deliberation and the institutions that it builds say that it should. Finally, Cohen trains his eye on Christianity, which argues that “equality requires not mere history and the abundance to which it leads, or mere politics, but a moral revolution, a revolution in the soul.”
Cohen isn’t shy about criticizing each of these systems. Because of its faith in the arc of history, Cohen writes, Marxism displays little interest in moral arguments in favor of equality: equality will arrive anyway, so we don’t really need to think too hard about what it means or why we might want it to arrive in the first place. (Cohen calls this the “obstetric motif” in Marxism—we don’t have to create the good society, just help in its delivery once its arrival is imminent.) Because of its focus on justice as largely a matter of institutions, Rawlsian liberalism tends to elide personal action. As Cohen writes, “personal choices to which the writ of the law is indifferent are fateful for social justice,” and Rawlsian liberalism just isn’t equipped to give an adequate account of these types of personal, non-institutional choices. As for Christianity, Cohen argues that at least a certain strand believes “that all justice is a matter of morally informed personal decision; on this particular Christian view, the rules set by Caesar can achieve little or nothing in the direction of establishing a just society.” The result is, at best, political quietism; at worst, a rejection of all structural attempts to achieve social justice.
Cohen’s main questions—what is equality and how do we achieve it—are of particular relevance right now. Think of the debates that have arisen over the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray charts many disturbing trends that (he claims) indicate the social and moral decline of the white lower class, such as increasing rates of crime and divorce. He then argues that it is this problem of ethos that is exacerbating inequality. As Nicholas Lehman writes, “What the non-élite need isn’t money, Murray thinks; it’s better values.” Unsurprisingly, this has prompted a backlash from those on the left, who argue that there are structural problems that account for the growing gap between the 1% and the rest of us, and that we must look to structural solutions, like a more progressive tax rate, in order to create a more just and equal society.
So, the question becomes, do we address the problem of inequality at the level of institutions (more just laws, more robust regulation of the market) or do we address it at the level of the individual (more just individual actions)? Is inequality primarily a legal problem, or is it a moral problem? Should we try to reform social structures or individual souls? The answer that Cohen gives in If You’re an Egalitarian…—and it’s one that I agree with—is that we need to change both. Both institutional and individual reforms are necessary, but neither on their own is sufficient. We need moral suasion and institutional reform, more egalitarian people and a more egalitarian economic framework.
There’s a lot more to If You’re an Egalitarian… than what I’ve sketched here. Cohen offers brilliant close readings of Marx and Feuerbach, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg. The pages in which Cohen explicates the Hegelian dialectic are particularly lucid. (Those familiar with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit will know that this is no small feat.) But what remains most important about Cohen’s book is its passionate interest in equality, both as a philosophical concept and as a political project. If You’re an Egalitarian… challenges us to think more critically about equality, and that’s a challenge that those on both the right and the left would do well to take up.