Why worry about equality

We all gain in numerous ways from the fact that we are all different to varying degrees in most respects. Strict equality in any respect can only mean uniformity in that respect. Equality as such is not generally a good thing. Certain varieties of socialist thinking that focus on eliminating inequalities inevitably turn out to be very oppressive. (Marx himself was not guilty in this respect.)

However there are many kinds of inequalities that have very detrimental effects on people’s lives. Some of these are due to natural causes, like many physical disabilities. It is to the credit of the much-maligned “nanny state” that we devote quite a lot of resources to helping people with disabilities to participate in as many areas of social life as possible.

Many other injurious inequalities are socially constructed, sometimes deliberately, but often as an unintended result of activities, some legitimate, others criminal undertaken for other reasons and causes. Some of these are remediable without recourse to compulsion, simply by dissuading the culprits from doing certain things, often just by shaming them. Those so shamed often attempt to deride this as “political correctness”. Obviously it can go too far.

Even those activists who operate principally without invoking political authority sometimes try to have the activities they want to suppress declared illegal, not so much in order to impose legal penalties on their targets as to show their opponents that the nation collectively disapproves of what they do. Obviously, that can help the activists to defend themselves from the imputation of being an idiosyncratic clique. It is a two-edged sword. Concentrating on legality invites the response that nobody has a right to criticise people who are doing what they are legally entitled to do. Usually the sorts of activity in question are mainly matter if intent in acting and notoriously difficult to prosecute. So some egregious offenders escape. Moral matter should as far as possible be left to moral suasion.

Nevertheless, there are many cases where such iniquitous inequalities are due to defects in our institutions that can be remedied only by changing the rules.
Notoriously the party politics we have tries to turn every such issue into a pawn in their adversarial struggle, thus often misrepresenting what is at stake, with inevitably unsatisfactory results overall.

The procedure of voting on a universal suffrage eliminates some noxious inequalities, but not others. Sortition has the additional merit of eliminating certain sorts of careerism, corruption and adversarial distortions. In these respects it is certainly superior to choosing reps by voting. Its role can, as Keith argued, be so constructed that the reps give a clear picture of the pattern of decisions that any equally random group would make under the same rules. But it is ludicrous to assert that all other aspects of sortition are trivial, as if only a certain sort of representational accuracy matters.

Unfortunately, if Keith is right, that strict accuracy can be secured only if the reps are restricted to a wholly passive role, allowed only a hermetically isolated yes-no response to what several adversarial parties choose to say. Their adversarial role is to win, not necessarily to offer reasons for trusting them. If they can succeed in demonising the opponents, they are the lesser evil. The decision-makers have no chance of asking for clarifications or evidence for claims, much less profiting from discussion with their peers.

Even if one accepts this limited role, if the issue being decided is, say, one of the treatment of indigenous people who have been reduced to a tiny minority of the population, most of whom are very reluctant to acknowledge any fault on the part of the invaders, it is almost inevitable that any advocate who hopes to win will attempt to pander to the prejudices of the majority, with predictable results for the indigenous minority.

Most democracies these days concede that when it comes to matters of the interests of minorities, they should have the opportunity of attempting to convince members of the majority of their special needs. Indeed many, rightly in my view, are prepared to allow them privileged control of certain matters. For example, modern regimes of title to land are utterly different from indigenous conventions. To insist that hey can have only the same sort of title in their communities as we do is to suppress their culture.

Ever since my first publications on politics I have argued against political procedures that are designed on the assumption that everybody should have an equal power in relation to every matter of public decision. I have tried to argue that that position is in fact based on the assumption that the only real public authority is the homogeneous nation-state. People who take that view occupy a spectrum ranging from libertarians who want to minimise authority of all sorts, except in the protection of property rights, to authoritarian nationalists and socialists.

I claim that we must be prepared to acknowledge other specialised authorities, both infra-national and supra- national according to the scale of particular needs of our natural and social ecosystems. Sortition would, in my view, have various important parts to play in most such authorities.

3 Responses

  1. First …
    Could you please untangle this sentence: “Usually the sorts of activity in question are mainly matter if intent in acting and notoriously difficult to prosecute.”

    You do not mention the role of the courts in protecting minority interests. Wouldn’t they — or perhaps only *shouldn’t* they — function as that counterweight to democratic tyranny? (Sorry not to have read your books … yet.)


  2. John,

    >it is ludicrous to assert that all other aspects of sortition are trivial, as if only a certain sort of representational accuracy matters.

    What I meant to say is that sortition plays a minor role in demarchy, in that it is just a mechanical technique to reduce the size of a pool to a workable committee in an impartial manner. Unfortunately if the original self-nominating pool of volunteers is unrepresentative of the target population (it could well be dominated by lobbyists and Tea Party activists) then the final group of 12 will have no democratic legitimacy whatsoever.

    >it is almost inevitable that any advocate who hopes to win will attempt to pander to the prejudices of the majority, with predictable results for the indigenous minority.

    Yes that’s a danger. My original proposal was for the deliberative exchange to come from an independent house of advocacy, comprised of the Great and the Good, but Naomi has been pushing me in the direction of fully politicising the process. I’m undecided on this, but would argue that even politicised advocacy would have to appeal to reasons and that forensic-style courtroom deliberation is not hugely removed from the Habermasian version. Deliberative Polling seems to manage a workable compromise between forensic advocacy and deliberation in the plenary sessions.

    Anonymous: >You do not mention the role of the courts in protecting minority interests.

    Agreed. Majoritarian decision making is only one element in a mixed constitution.


  3. To Anoinymous
    I “please untagle..”

    I suppose it is not clear what I meant by matters of intent. In very many matters there is little observable difference between behaviour that is an honest mistaken and fraud.

    Take the behaviour of Standard and Poor in giving AAA rating to what turned out to be junk. Their defence, I gather, is that they applied that rating on the basis of recognised procedures that had always been satisfactory in the past. If anybody took those procedures and applied them carefully on the basis of the same information as was available to S&P at the time, they could only arrive at the same conclusion.

    As I understand it, the key to the “mistake” was that they normally assumed that any failure to keep up payments on a mortgage could be treated as due to some unusual event such as illness or a divorce, and their calculations made allowance for such events. They also assumed that real estate values would continue to rise in the way they usually did. So their procedures simply did not envisage a situation of a massive collapse of values. An honest mistake?

    I think that defence is ridiculous. As sophisticate market analysts they should have looked at the average backing of those mortgages and the likely consequences of an economic downturn that would stop repayments in many.cases, leading to repossessions and cheap sales, which in turn panicked others and so on. There is some evidence that at least some insiders understood what was going on, but kept quiet because they did not want to accept the blame for starting a panic. But nobody has been prosecuted and S&P continues to make and break firms and even governments by dispensing dubious credit ratings.

    Politics, of course, but also the difficulty of proving that they knew they were doing wrong.

    2 Courts and minority interests.

    Courts only really deal with explicit discrimination against minorities, cases where they cannot do what others are allowed to do, and usually only where there is strong public sympathy with that minority. That leaves a lot of cases out of court because juries won’t convict if they think the minority ought to be discouraged. See also my reply to Keith above.


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