Absolute improvement


Jason Collins


January 29, 2012

Fernando Teson writes:

Yet, outside the rarified circles of political philosophy journals, I haven’t heard many folks ask two other important questions about the President’s approach.  Yet these questions are, to me, obvious.

First, why should reducing income equality be a worthy goal? If we are concerned with the poor, then we should focus (as Rawls famously does) in improving their lot in absolute terms, regardless of the effect of such improvement on the gap between them and the rich. Again, this is common currency in academic circles, but I don’t hear anyone in our public debate making the point.

One reason why the focus is not on improving the absolute income of the poor is that income is not the sole objective of those at the bottom.

To make a point I have often made before, if someone’s aim is to attract a mate, a slight increase in absolute income will not assist low-status males in achieving this objective if massive increases at the top allow high-status males to dominate the mating market (or to cause high-status women to price themselves too high).

If we accept that people have objectives beyond absolute income, the range of policy considerations becomes more interesting. Take prohibitions against polygamy, whose primary beneficiary (particularly before the emergence of the welfare state) was low-status males. Compulsory child-support payments reduce the benefits for a woman of partnering with a low-status male. The terms of the policy debate about inequality do not have to be primarily about income.

That is not to say that increasing absolute income does not matter. It does. It is just that income inequality plays out in other spheres that people care about - and increasing absolute income provides no guarantee of addressing those.