again is an ancient account of inequality—and of an ethical
norm that counterbalances it.
was only in the 1900s that we began to approach an ideal of
reasonable equality—universal suffrage, equality under
the law (in principle), respect for personal integrity and fundamental
material security. But this only applied to some parts of the
world, and even then, the West saw a number of notable lapses
into despotism that reversed this progress. Human history is
essentially a history of inequality.
degree of historical consistency over time—the omnipresence
of inequality—warrants an explanation. But so does inequality’s
shadow: for millennia, the benchmark of equality has loomed
just as large, if more abstractly, and it, too, deserves to
be investigated. After all, the authors of the early accounts
above were not only reacting to their surroundings—thousands
of years ago, like many of their descendants today, they had
a vision of a different society.
political philosophy help us understand the story of inequality—and
of equality? Political philosophy explores what makes a good
society. There are essentially three ways to pursue this philosophical
inquiry. One approach—a relatively lazy one—is to
use the status quo as a starting point and to discuss how best
to manage it. A philosopher might then suggest some marginal
changes to society, all of which would stem from the current
state. Niccolo` Machiavelli and David Hume are exponents of
this philosophical method.
method is to begin with a sketch of a society, neither arguing
for nor against various alternatives. The Laws of Manu,
which outlines the Indian caste system, and Plato’s Republic
are examples from this tradition. These are not strictly works
of political philosophy, however, because they avoid the question
of how the proposed solution will gain legitimacy. Instead,
they simply make reference to some historical mystery or shadow.
Some more recent examples are Thomas More’s Utopia,
Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, and
Robert Owen’s A New View of Society. The common
feature of these blueprints is their level of detail: there
are rules and regulations for all of life’s eventualities,
and even forays into urban planning.
third and more purely philosophical tradition aims to first
define rights and freedoms and then to establish, on this basis,
a legitimate foundation for political power. In one of the most
important traditions, creating a society is presented as a 'social
contract' in which a group of people give up some of their individual
freedoms in order to share in the fruits of the community. The
philosophical discussion, then, is about the terms of this contract.
actual historical situation is described when employing this
model of thought, even if there have been a few situations that
have come close to resembling it. Nonetheless, it possesses
a key strength: it clears the table of historical inheritance
and other contingencies in order to discuss the terms from a
perspective that, at the very least, has an egalitarian starting
point, even if there is no guarantee of an egalitarian result.
This approach is intellectually appealing; contract theories
have been published at a fairly steady rate from classical antiquity
to modern times. The first contributions come from the Greek
philosophers, such as the Epicureans, the Cynics, and the Stoics—approaches
that were systematized in the first century bce by Lucretius
in his work On the Nature of Things.
the Middle Ages, the concept was given a Christian framework
by Manegold of Lautenbach and Nicholas of Cusa. Marsilius of
Padua was bold enough to discuss contracts in non-religious
terms, and in doing so, he was far ahead of his time. Hugo Grotius
and Thomas Hobbes were still writing within a religious framework
in the 1600s, even if it was quite clear that to them God was
an unnecessary hypothesis, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
analysis of the social contract presaged the French Revolution.
work of Hobbes and Rousseau provoked liberal responses. This
was classical liberalism, rather than social liberalism, and
its proponents—Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, John Stuart
Mill, and others—did not write in terms of a social contract.
Indeed, contemporary heirs to the tradition, such as Friedrich
von Hayek, have declared their contempt for the concept as a
whole. Still, their thoughts about society often revolve around
a kind of ideal constitution—one of von Hayek’s
more prominent works is titled The Constitution of Liberty—so
the approach is present, if unwittingly.
the idea of a social contract lost some of its appeal, particularly
when it came under the scrutiny of conservative and right-leaning
liberal critics, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice
gave it new life during the 1970s, and when Robert Nozick launched
a counterattack with Anarchy, State, and Utopia a few
years later, he also argued using contractual terms, even though
the content of his contract differed from that of Rawls’s.
social contract as a figure of thought has been with us for
more than two thousand years, and clearly, it is here to stay.
amount of political philosophy has been written without the
involvement of social scientists. This is a rather strange fact.
If you take it upon yourself to discuss how people’s relationships
should be regulated in the political realm—whether that
takes the form of a social contract or a constitution—the
knowledge of how people actually behave in various situations
should be key to any inquiry. Because politics by and large
is about the division of a society’s immaterial and material
resources—and because any overview of the history of humankind
cannot help but leave one with the overwhelming impression that
these resources have been inequitably divided—the most
reasonable starting point for a discussion is an analysis of
the mechanisms of inequality. Then the central question becomes
“Why are all societies unequal?”
follow-up question that naturally emerges from this first one
is: “Can inequality be politically influenced?”
Conservatives often assert that precisely because inequality
is a common trait of nearly every society, one should perhaps
avoid trying to influence the distribution of life chances,
incomes, and assets. Yet this is a hasty conclusion to draw.
Even if inequality cannot be eliminated, the level of inequality
and its structure and degree might be open to political influence,
and in this way, be kept within reasonable bounds.
question is how the main alternatives described in the classical
ideologies—liberalism, conservatism, socialism—address
inequality as a phenomenon. An ideology, after all, is a kind
of map that helps us orient ourselves on the political landscape.
If, then, inequality is one of the fundamental problems in politics,
a critical assessment of how it is described and influenced
within these ideological frameworks is essential if one wants
to determine their validity.