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Against equality: Michael Huemer’s ‘Pareto Argument’

July 20, 2017

Those arguing in favor of inequality face an imposing burden. This is because they have chosen to defend a pathological state of power in which one group rules over another. It contravenes not only democracy but widely held notions of human value and fairness.

The well-financed masters of this dark art have concocted a number of approaches to their Herculean task and each, by necessity, requires subterfuge to hide the stark truths underling their position. Since inequality is a system resting on a false world-picture, all arguments in its favor must correspondingly be false. A key job for an egalitarian is to confront these arguments and show how they lack rational foundation.

I seek in this post to examine the so-called ‘Pareto Argument’ of right-libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer as presented in his published paper Against Equality and Priority. He seems to think rather highly of it, claiming not only that it “provides us with grounds for denying Egalitarianism” but even that “unless some further, independent grounds for denying one of the argument’s premises are forthcoming, we should reject… Egalitarianism”.

The central question Huemer seeks to answer in his paper is “whether a state of affairs in which a given group of people—especially the members of some society—are equally well off, is pro tanto intrinsically better than a state of affairs in which the same group has a slightly higher total utility but with a great inequality of welfare among the member group”.

Huemer asks us to picture three possible worlds, A, A+, and B. World A is an egalitarian one of a million people with each having a “very high welfare level” of 101. World A+ is a grossly inegalitarian one of two million—one million with a welfare level of 102 whom he calls the “Advantaged” and one million with a welfare level of just 1, the lowest possible level in which life is still worth living. He calls these the “Disadvantaged”. Finally, World B is an egalitarian world of 2 million with each having a welfare level of 50.

Huemer’s ultimate claim is that inegalitarian World A+ is better than egalitarian World B and he reaches it via a few steps. First, he argues that A+ is better than A because it is better for everyone. It is better for the Advantaged because they have a higher welfare level and it’s better for the Disadvantaged because existing is better than not existing. The Disadvantaged exist in A+ but are absent in A and would therefore prefer A+. He introduces his preferred evaluating logic and calls it the “Weak Pareto Principle”. It goes like this:

Weak Pareto Principle

For any two worlds, x and y, if all the following hold:

i) x has greater total utility than y,

ii) x would be preferred to y from the standpoint of fully informed, rational self-interest by every individual who would exist in either world,

iii) all the inhabitants of x deserve the benefits they receive in x, or at least do not deserve not to receive them, and

iv) there are no morally relevant differences between x and y apart from differences in their utility distributions (for example, they do not differ in amounts of virtue, or knowledge, or freedom)

Then x is better than y.

Let’s accept for argument’s sake, albeit with many reservations, that A+ is to be preferred over A using the Weak Pareto Principle.

His next step is to argue that egalitarian World A is better than egalitarian World B since everyone existing in the former has a higher welfare level. One could object that World A is not better for the half in World B that would no longer exist but I don’t need to pursue that line here. Let’s just again accept for argument’s sake that A is better than B.

Huemer then uses transitivity to reach his desired conclusion: If inegalitarian World A+ is better than egalitarian World A and egalitarian World A is better than egalitarian World B, then inegalitarian World A+ must be better than egalitarian World B. He jumps bravely to the grand conclusion that “equality never matters”.

As mentioned, there is always subterfuge in arguments against equality and in this one it’s in setting the intermediate World A at half the size of the two worlds that are the primary concern, Worlds A+ and B. Why confuse things by introducing World A with a different population size? This is a subterfuge that hinders clear thinking of the situation. The central issue is the comparison between World A+ and World B. Huemer wants us to believe that the inegalitarian World A+ of 2 million in which half are in dire poverty and half live very well is objectively better than the egalitarian World B of 2 million people in which all live at moderate standards of living. But this fails his own Weak Pareto Principle, the very basis of the paper!

If we ignore the seemingly obvious fact that an incremental unit of welfare is more valuable to the Disadvantaged than the Advantaged, then item i) of the principal is met, although just barely. World A+ has 103 million welfare units versus World B’s 100. But item ii) of the principal is violated in a very substantial way. World A+ will not be preferred to World B from the standpoint of fully informed, rational self-interest by every individual who would exist in either world. It is rational for half the population of World B to violently object to having their 50 welfare units reduced to 1 so that the other half could live at 102. Huemer’s entire argument is negated.

He seeks to hide this fact by making things complex and inserting the intermediate World A. This is a useful device for it permits him to apply the Weak Pareto Principle, albeit in a convoluted way, to justify the desired ending that could not be reached via the open light of day.

Let’s see how this is done by going back to the comparison between inegalitarian A+ with two million people and egalitarian A with one million. He says A+ is better because of the indisputable proposition that human life has value. Adding a million poverty stricken humans to this world yields a society more valuable than the one without them. Of course we must agree—A+ is better given that choice for we can’t move to a better world by simply terminating the lives of the poor. But this isn’t an issue of equality, it’s an issue of human life itself and it’s completely inappropriate to mix the two.

If we instead set all populations to two million, then we expose the subterfuge, the argument becomes facile, and we see that the Weak Pareto Principle provides no help. Item ii) will never be met—the Advantaged will prefer inequality while the Disadvantaged prefer equality. We should note, though, that as far as total utility goes, item i) of the principle, egalitarian World A is vastly superior to World A+. At a cost to the Advantaged of only one unit, total welfare in World A is 202 million versus only 103 million in A+.

It’s worthwhile to note that Vilfredo Pareto supported Mussolini and detested democracy. His ideas on optimality and efficiency, fully reflected in Huemer’s Weak Pareto Principle, are deeply interwoven with his politics. By implicitly branding as illegitimate all efforts to change the distribution of power without the consent of every single person in society, it represents an aggressively undemocratic philosophy of status-quo stagnation. It’s not surprising, in this light, that a right-libertarian philosopher would like to use Pareto in the reverse sense and convince the left that even they should object to egalitarianism on the right-wing grounds of Pareto. It would be quite a coup. He has, however, predictably failed.

We have met Huemer’s challenge and have provided “independent grounds for denying [his] argument’s premises”. We therefore should not follow his lead and should not reject egalitarianism. My main argument runs much deeper though. It’s that every argument against egalitarianism can be shown to be similarly shallow and irrational.

From → Egalitarianism

3 Comments
  1. Helping people improve, helping them reach their potential, enriching the overall store of human capital, is the most important thing anyone can do. I knew an uneducated working-class woman who nursed her cocaine-addicted premie grandson back to health from the brink of lifelong disability. She alone didn’t give up on him. I consider her more heroic than Bill Gates. If people must be judged, it should be by how well they play the hand that they are dealt. Somebody said that, maybe it was Nelson Algren.

  2. SapphireSpire permalink

    The disparity of wealth we see today is not so much the result of any differences in education or labor output as it is the result of monopolism, cronyism, and over-regulation. The U.S. oligarchy has engineered a captive market system in which it is illegal for the vast majority of individuals to be productive in direct competition with established manufacturing and publishing monopolies. The lack of opportunity for self employment results in high demand for jobs, which keeps labor markets saturated, which gives monopolistic employers a monopsonistic advantage over wage and salary negotiations. Most importantly though, it permits the government to make sure that most of our income taxes are paid despite our single-digit approval rating of the oligarchy.

    • The disparity of wealth we see today is the same as has existed over the entire history of civilization. It all ultimately comes down to the monopoly (or near-monopoly) ownership of the means of production by a small minority. It’s not an issue of this or that billionaire or of any individual at all, it’s an ever-changing but essentially constant millennia spanning systemic structure that enables the perpetual reproduction of power over the majority. It requires an ideology and the one of today happens to be individualism, the Lockean ‘natural’ right to property, and the belief the system is an ‘economic’ one of ‘capitalism’ of which inequality is a mere secondary side-effect.

      I believe the most important first step is to recognize the system as oligarchy and its supporting ideologies as mere apologies of power. It’s interesting how the right-wing philosophical industry, such as we see with Huemer in this post, seeks to forever justify power via such plainly contorted arguments.

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