Aristotle on handling envy and distributive justice

You must've seen this a number of times: some libertarian dismisses complaints about inequality by saying, "What does it matter if inequality is growing, so long as the poor are getting wealthier in an absolute sense? To worry about one's relative wealth, to resent another for doing even better than one is doing oneself, is simply envy."

There are two things to note here: first of all, not all worry about increasing inequality is based on envy. Republican theorists throughout the centuries worried about great economic inequality because they felt it made republican politics impossible: the very rich could easily buy the allegiance and votes of the very poor, who would not act as independent republican citizens, but as clients of their wealthy patrons.

But let us grant that some of the worry about inequality is based on end. That does not mean we can dismiss it lightly! Here is Aristotle on the issue: "Inequality is everywhere at the bottom of faction, for in general faction arises from men's striving for what is equal."

To lessen the effects of faction, Aristotle recommends balancing the two sorts of civic equality: numerical equality and value equality. Numerical equality consists of giving a strictly equal share of goods to all citizens; value equality grants larger shares to those of more merit in proportion to their merit. As Aristotle sees it, a one-sided emphasis on numerical equality will produce a revolt on the part of the meritorious, as they feel they are unjustly being denied a greater share of the goods of the polity that their merit ought to earn for them. But a one-sided emphasis on value equality will produce a revolt on the part of the masses, who will find the principle of the equality of all citizens in the polis to be flouted by tremendous wealth accumulation in the hands of a few.

This is mature politics: we don't deny the existence of envy, but try to manage it in order to produce the best social order possible, given the real, flawed human beings that must compose it. Perhaps, say, by allowing the (economically) meritorious to earn what they can in a competitive market, but then redistributing some of those earnings to those who fare less well in that competition?


  1. Are you familiar with Mickey Kaus' book "The End of Equality"? He argues that it's not economic inequality as such that poses a threat to republicanism, but rather the effect of economic inequality on social inequality. He's a conservative, so he doesn't favor much redistribution of wealth as an end in itself, but he does favor things which increase social equality. So for instance he favors single-payer healthcare, not because he thinks that we owe certain services to the poor, but because he wants rich and poor alike to participate in a common system, so that their common experiences will lead them to agree on what policy solutions are necessary.

    1. No I am not: thanks for the tip.

  2. Noah Smith had a good post on equality of respect. That really is eroding.


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