The Inequalities That Justice Also Requires

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


We are here concerned with political and economic equalities that are equalities in kind to which differences in degree must be added. The resultant inequalities in degree occur among those who are already equal in kind.

Those who are all haves, either politically or economically, will then include those who have more and those who have less, with no one having less than is needed for the purpose and no one having more than is compatible with everyone having enough.

Let me illustrate this with regard to political equality. That will help us to deal with the more difficult case of economic equality.

Entitled to have, through citizenship with suffrage, the minimal measure of political liberty and power attendant upon that status, some citizens deserve, in varying degrees, more power to participate in the affairs of government. The citizens in question happen for a time to hold one or another public office and are thereby charged with the responsibility to perform functions constitutionally assigned to such offices. In proportion to their responsibilities, it is right and fit that they should have more political power and a greater voice in public affairs.

The minimal measure allotted ordinary citizens, those not in public office, suffices for participation through elections, having a voice in referendums or plebiscites, and engaging in party politics, local or national. That much at least is requisite for the exercise of suffrage. Those who have, in varying degrees, more than this are entitled to it by what they are called upon to do politically over and above discharging the duties of ordinary citizens.

As Alexander Hamilton pointed out, unless political power is proportionate to political responsibility, the responsibility cannot be effectively discharged. Citizens in public office must therefore, exercise more political power than when they are not in office.

Here, then, in a constitutional government with universal suffrage, all persons, except infants and the pathologically disabled, are politically equal as citizens with suffrage. All have the requisite minimal measure of power for participation in public affairs. Some of them, holding public office, have in varying degrees more power and a greater voice in public affairs. But none has too much, which would be the case only if the chief magistrate or head of state were to arrogate to himself unconstitutional powers that effectively nullified the suffrage of ordinary citizens.

The principle of justice that is operative here differs from the principle that we saw operative with regard to the political equality in kind to which all human beings are by right entitled.

There, the entitlement was based on the personal equality in kind of all human beings and on their endowment with the same natural rights based on needs inherent in human nature, among which is the need and right of a political animal to have a voice in his political affairs.

Here, the justification of giving some citizens more political power and a greater voice in public affairs rests not on what they are as human beings, but upon what they are called upon to do by the offices they hold — on the political functions they have the responsibility of performing.

The justice of rendering to each what is his or hers by natural right is the justice that entitles all to political and economic equality — an equality in kind that puts all, in the first instance, on the base line of having enough of the political and economic goods that they need in order to live well.

The justice of treating equals equally and unequals unequally in proportion to their inequality is the justice that entitles some of the haves to have more and some to have less in varying degrees. Because it is a point of the greatest importance, let me repeat two qualifications: (1) none less than enough for the purpose and (2) none more than is compatible with everyone having enough.

Accordingly, all enfranchised citizens are equal in kind on the base line, on which they all share the same minimal degree of political power requisite for an effective discharge of their suffrage. Above the base line are some of those same citizens who, while in public office by election or appointment, have more political power in varying degrees.

Those above the base line have more political power legitimately (i.e., by just entitlement) only if they have it because of the power constitutionally vested in the office they hold. They have it illegitimately if they have it through the undue influence they are able to exercise because of their massive wealth, their social standing in the community, their personal charisma, or some other form of privilege or prestige.

The political picture we have just surveyed provides us with a model to adapt in dealing with economic equality and inequality.

The first principle of justice here as in the political sphere is the principle of rendering to each what belongs to all by natural right. All have a natural right to that sufficiency of economic goods which is enough to provide them with the wealth they need to lead decent human lives, lives not crippled by economic deprivation to a degree that amounts to destitution.

When this first principle of justice is operative in a society without any exceptions, for there are no justifiable exceptions here as there are in the political sphere, then all are haves economically — all are economically equal in kind on the base line, which is determined by that measure or degree of wealth sufficient for the purpose.

More than that is more than enough. Can it be justified? Are some human beings rightly entitled to more wealth than that possessed by those who remain on the base line? Why does justice require the economic inequality in degree that results when some haves have more than others?

The second principle of justice provides the answer to these questions, as it does in the political sphere. But the economic application of that principle is somewhat different.

Those who have more than the minimal measure of wealth that all require for their natural needs are not entitled to it by natural right. Their entitlement derives from what they do, not from what they are as human beings.

In the political sphere, what those entitled to more political power do is to discharge the functions of the political offices they hold, for the performance of which they are constitutionally responsible. In the economic sphere, what those entitled to more wealth do is to make a greater contribution to the production of wealth.

That is certainly the principal, if not the only, way in which they can come into legitimate possession of more wealth. They possess it illegitimately if they come by it through theft, or seizure, or through exercising any influence on the distribution of wealth other than the merit of their productive contribution.

The second principle of justice, as applied in the economic sphere, can be initially stated as follows: To each the wealth that he produces. This maxim makes sense only in the simple case in which each individual works by himself to produce wealth. In that case, the man who produces more is by right entitled to all that he produces.

When we pass from the simple to the more complex case in which men work together to produce wealth, under a variety of arrangements and by a variety of productive means, the maxim must be reworded as follows: To each in proportion to his contribution to the total wealth that all engage cooperatively in producing.

If all who are engaged cooperatively make equal contributions, which is unlikely in most instances of complex economic operations, then each is entitled to share equally in the distribution of the wealth produced. When, as is more likely, the contributions of those engaged cooperatively are unequal, justice requires that the results shall also be unequal, unequal in proportion to the inequality of contribution.

Those who have made a greater contribution are justly entitled to more wealth than those who contribute less. Two qualifications must be immediately attached to this rule.

First, all, in one way or another, must be equal on the economic base line that is determined by that minimal measure of sufficient wealth to satisfy man’s economic needs. To this much everyone has a natural right.

Second, since the amount of wealth available for distribution is limited, no one should be in a position to earn by his productive contribution — to earn, not to steal or seize — so much wealth that not enough remains for distribution, in one way or another, to put all individuals or families on the base line of economic sufficiency.

None, in short, should be rendered destitute by the distribution of wealth in unequal amounts, even if that distribution can be justified by the inequality of individual contributions.

We must observe here a complication in the formulation of economic justice that does not occur in the political sphere. No conflict arises there between (a) the just entitlement of all to be political haves (all with that minimal measure of political power requisite for the effective exercise of suffrage), and (b) the justice of an unequal distribution of political power, above the base line where all are politically equal, according to the functions those in public office are called upon to perform and the unequal degrees of responsibility involved in the performance of these functions.

No one can have so much political power legitimately that the base line itself is destroyed, or that some are in effect disfranchised and dropped below the base line to a position of political subjection or slavery, deprived of all political liberty and power.

In the economic sphere, the situation is different. It is possible for some to acquire legitimately so much of the limited supply of wealth that not enough is left for a just distribution to all of the minimal measure — enough wealth to supply what everyone needs to lead a decent human life.

To acknowledge this is to recognize that, in the economic sphere, the first and second principles of justice come into conflict. The first principle, which requires that every individual or family shall have that minimal measure to which all are by natural right entitled, is nullified by the second principle, which awards more wealth to those who contribute more to its production, when some individuals or families are in a position to make so great a contribution that their just award — their legitimate acquirement of a great amount of wealth — is so massive that not enough is left for distribution in accordance with economic needs, which are the same for all.

The conflict between these two principles of justice in the economic sphere can be resolved only by adding a restrictive qualification to the second. The amount of wealth that anyone can justly acquire must be limited so that enough of the finite supply is left for a just distribution in accordance with natural rights. This principle of limitation on an otherwise just acquisition of wealth was first enunciated by John Locke in the chapter on property in his Second Treatise on Civil Government.

That those who contribute unequally shall receive unequally in proportion to the inequality of their contribution is a principle of justice that must be made subservient to the principle of justice that calls for an equal distribution to all of that minimal measure of wealth everyone needs. Justice according to natural rights takes precedence in the economic sphere over justice according to the equality or inequality of the contributions made to the production of wealth.

The foregoing analysis of economic justice calls for brief comment on Marxist maxims with regard to the distribution of wealth.

In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx modified the original Communist maxim for the distribution of wealth — the egalitarian precept “To all alike, an equality without any difference in degree” — by the statement “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.”

The context makes absolutely clear that Marx did not have in mind the natural needs that are common to all human beings, for then he would not have said “To each according to his needs,” but rather “To all alike according to their common human needs.” That statement would have introduced no modification of the original egalitarian precept.

What is clear from the context is that Marx had in mind not the natural needs, which are the same for everyone, but those contingent circumstantial needs that result from one worker’s being older or younger than another, having a larger family to support than another, or having to take care of some member of his family disabled by illness.

Insofar as these contingent circumstantial needs justify unequal compensation to different workers even if those workers perform the same functions and make equal contributions to the production of wealth, the original egalitarian precept would appear to be superseded by the addition of differences in degree to an equality in kind.

However, it can still be maintained that all are equal in kind, without the addition of differences in degree. The satisfaction of the differential contingent needs still leaves all families having just enough. Enough for one family with more dependents to support or with care of members disabled by illness is neither more nor less than enough for another family with fewer dependents and no illness.

The real modification of the original egalitarian precept was introduced later by Nikita Khrushchev when he added the precept “To each according to his contribution.” This did not displace but supplemented the maxim “To each according to his needs” — whether natural or circumstantial.

When the two maxims are combined and conflict between them is resolved by making the second subservient to the first, the result is an economic equality in kind (every individual or family being on the base line of the haves who have enough) modified by an economic inequality in degree (some individuals or families rising above the base line and having more than enough, though never too much with the result that some are rendered destitute).

The maxims of justice with respect to the distribution of political power we all recognize to be the precepts of constitutional democracy. The parallel maxims of justice with respect to the distribution of wealth are the precepts of socialism. Those who shy away from that word, and may even be inclined to reject sound maxims of economic justice because the word “socialism” is attached to them, should realize that socialism is not the same as communism.

The precepts of socialism can be fulfilled in a variety of ways, only one of which may be the communist way, which is the way of state capitalism — the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the complete control of both the production and the distribution of wealth by the state.

The precepts of socialism can also be fulfilled in the socialized capitalism that is our own mixed economy, in which private ownership of the means of production remains, in which there is both a private and a public sector, in which there is freedom of enterprise regulated by justice, not totally unregulated laissez-faire.

The only kind of economy in which the precepts of socialism cannot be fulfilled is one in which freedom of enterprise is not regulated by justice, in which the private ownership of the means of production in the hands of very few families allows them to accumulate too much wealth, even when justly earned by their massive contribution to its production, so that many individuals and families are rendered destitute.

A just economy, whether achieved by communism (which is more accurately called state capitalism without freedom of enterprise) or by socialized capitalism (sometimes called the mixed economy because it retains private ownership of capital with some limitations upon it, and also freedom of enterprise with some government regulation of it), is one in which no one is destitute, in which all individuals or families participate in the general economic welfare, at least to the extent that all have the degree of wealth to which everyone is entitled on the basis of needs, and in which some have more wealth justly earned by the greater contribution they make to its production.

That is why we apply the phrase “welfare state” to states that have adopted state capitalism as well as to states that have adopted socialized capitalism. Both alike try to fulfill the precepts of socialism, though only the first try to do so by measures associated with communism rather than with private property and free enterprise.

In presenting the precepts of socialism as maxims of justice in the economic sphere, establishing an equality of economic conditions at the base line, accompanied by an inequality in degree above the base line, I have so far omitted one other maxim of great importance. It is the maxim that both Marx and Khrushchev put first: “From each according to his ability.” That precept precedes “To each according to his needs” and “To each according to his contribution.”

This maxim calls for two comments. First, it must be pointed out that, in any population, some are not able to make any contribution to the production of wealth. This runs parallel to the fact that, in the political sphere, some are not able to participate by exercising political power — infants and the pathologically disabled. They must be taken care of by families, by private charities, or as wards of the state. Their disfranchisement is just.

In the economic sphere, infants must also be taken care of, either by families or as wards of the state. In addition, there are individuals who suffer disabilities that render them unable to make any contribution to the production of wealth. They, too, must be taken care of, either by families, by private charities, or by the state.

Their basic economic needs are the same as those of their more fortunate fellows who are able to contribute to production and do so according to their abilities. Justice requires that their economic needs be satisfied by having enough wealth to live decent human lives, even if they cannot rise above the base line by earning more than that through the contribution they make.

This leaves us with a third group — those who have the ability requisite to engage in the production of wealth but cannot find employment in the economic sphere and, therefore, cannot earn by work either the minimal sufficiency that everyone needs or more than that. justice requires that they be sustained by welfare payments, but only if their inability to find work is no fault of their own.

The welfare payments received by those who are both able and willing to earn a living, but cannot do so because they are unemployed through no fault of their own, make them dependents in the way that children are. This is an indignity that no adult human being should be forced to suffer. To avoid the injustice thus suffered by individuals able and willing to work, economic arrangements are thoroughly just only when they make it possible for everyone who is able to earn a living by contributing to the production of wealth to do so either to a degree that earns the decent livelihood that is enough to satisfy economic needs or to a degree that earns more wealth than that, within the limitation specified earlier.

The second comment to be made on the maxim “From each according to his ability” concerns the degrees of ability that underlie the different degrees of contribution that individuals can make.

These differences come, first of all, from differences in native endowment. Some are some with talents or aptitudes that make them able to make a greater contribution than that which can be made by others with inferior endowments.

Another explanation of different degrees of ability looks to what use individuals make of their inborn talents and aptitudes — the degree to which, by their own efforts, they fulfill their innate capacities. Those who start equal in the degree of their endowments may end up unequal in the degree of their attainments. It is even possible for individuals with inferior endowments to attain a development of themselves that surpasses attainments achieved by individuals of superior endowments. The former do so by making more of their inborn gifts than the latter.

Still another explanation lies in the favorable or unfavorable circumstances under which individuals make the effort to develop themselves. Those deprived of adequate schooling, for example, may thereby be prevented from making good use of their inborn gifts. As a result, their ultimate attainments may be inferior to those achieved by others who, with inferior endowments, have the advantage of better schooling.

Schooling is only one instance of many circumstantial factors that can influence the degree of ability an individual attains. Favorable circumstances facilitate reaching greater attainments; unfavorable circumstances hinder individuals from achieving all they can.

Considerations of justice, therefore, recommend that “From each according to his ability” together with “To each according to his contribution” works out equitably only when the circumstances (under which unequally endowed individuals make equal efforts to reach attainments that fully realize their innate capacities) are equally favorable to the success of such efforts.

The point just made introduces equality of opportunity into the picture. For inequality in attainments to result justly from inequality of endowments, given equal effort on the part of the unequally endowed, individuals must have an equal opportunity to exercise their talents and aptitudes, and put them to good use.

For inequality in attainments justly achieved to result in an unequal earning of wealth according to the precepts of justice we have been considering, all must have an equal opportunity to employ their innate and acquired abilities in productive work.

In addition, equal opportunity for employment should operate in a manner that engages those of superior ability, whether innate or acquired, in tasks or functions that are more productive. When those of superior ability are forced by unfavorable circumstances to take inferior jobs, equality of opportunity is not working as it should.

Equality of opportunity does not come into conflict with equality of condition when the latter is given precedence, as it should be because it is based on the first principle of justice: To all equally according to their needs.

Nor does it come into conflict with the inequalities of condition that justice also requires when these result from the operation of the second principle of justice: To each in varying degrees according to the functions performed or to the contributions made.

On the contrary, equality of opportunity facilitates the just operation of that second principle by providing equally favorable circumstances for all to make the most of their unequal talents and aptitudes and to put their acquired virtues, moral and intellectual, to the best use in political activity and in the production of wealth.

From Six Great Ideas, Chapter 23

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