Prose & Politics

In an Unequal World

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Too many questions to ask but no answers in sight

Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World | Samuel Moyn | Harvard University Press | 277 pages | $29.95
Why Does Inequality Matter? | Thomas Scanlon | Oxford University Press | 192 pages | £18.99

IN 2006 INDIA began a programme that created work as a right, perhaps the most ambitious of its kind anywhere in the world. For a country that is considered a very unequal place in the world, the work guarantee plan was hailed as a milestone in its evolution. Since then, trillions of rupees have been spent on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). This year alone, it has a budget of Rs 55,000 crore.

For scholars like Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale University, this is exactly the kind of remedy the world needs, including rich Western democracies where concerns about inequality and its effects are at an all-time high. Moyn is a historian of human rights who has written extensively on the subject. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) sketched a history of the topic in the 20th century. In his new book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard University Press; 277 pages; $29.95), he extends the intellectual horizon considerably when he tries to marry human rights—usually understood as inalienable rights of human beings that cannot be abridged in any way—with socio-economic rights, a distinct class of rights with a very different historical trajectory. Anyone with awareness about the history of the 20th century will immediately grasp the two trends as products of antithetical politics. Mixing the two tends to muddy more than clarify their history.

In that sense, Not Enough tries to pull together two ropes that are tugging against each other at opposite ends. As a conventional history, the book’s narrative is simple: starting from the roots of socio-economic rights in the French Revolution all the way to the end of the Cold War. But behind this simple telling lies a more convoluted history of ideas and practice: human rights—including the right to religious freedom, freedom of expression and individual dignity, as broadly as one can define it, among a host of others—were denied and violated outright in practice in erstwhile socialist countries. But these were also countries where economic equality was pursued with gusto: private property and enterprise were repressed almost until the very end. In contrast, in Western countries, individual freedoms—including the right to private property—have always been a defining feature of democracy. Except for a brief post-World War II interlude, socio-economic rights have not been a preoccupation in the West, especially not in the US. In Europe, where a modicum of redistribution and concern with income (and wealth) inequality has coexisted with robust individual freedoms, various crises—including the vicissitudes of the welfare state and inexorable tides of migration—have complicated the picture.

That, however, does not deter Moyn. As an author with a sense of humanist purpose, he pursues both ideals vigorously and simultaneously. He does not believe in sequencing these rights and argues that, ‘…the lesson of the age of national welfare is that the struggle to advocate both sufficient protections and more equal outcomes, in order to do justice to both, is not to be sequenced but to be made simultaneously, with all the difficulties that pursuing two ends at once inevitably involves.’

Historically, all revolutions that sought equality degenerated into terror. Maybe today our sense of these dangerous possibilities is low and hope at what can be achieved with radical equality is high

The trouble is that it is not clear how this can be done. One promising path to end the worst outcomes of a system where some people don’t have enough to get by decently is to ensure sufficient resources to meet various needs. These include healthcare, decent education and income. Moyn does not favour this and rules it out at the outset: ‘Though one might hope that sufficiency (especially if defined upward) might lead to equality, it is equally possible that the poor will come closer to sufficient provision as the rich reap ever greater gains for themselves. In practice, sufficiency may get along better with hierarchy than with equality. It is also increasingly credible that a concern with equality is a better way to achieve sufficiency in practice—or at least that our desire to provide a sufficient minimum to the worst off is under threat to the extent that a frontally egalitarian politics is dropped.’ He continues with an even more radical proposition: ‘What if there is no way to win political support for sufficient goods for the destitute in society, or around the world, unless more equal circumstances are achieved for its members…’

It may sound uncharitable to say that his concern is not with sufficiency and well-being of the worst-off in society, but with equality as an end in itself. It bespeaks two things: anger at inequality and a certain fatalism that only equality can ameliorate the evils of want. There is danger here. It has been pointed out by many that concern with equality prevents individuals from realistically assessing what they need to pursue for their goals in life or what is needed to meet their ends. When one concerns oneself with what others have— which is what equality is all about at its root—envy makes an entry as a political emotion. If one wants radical equality (or a not-so-radical version), it will lead to a constant level of envy until equality is achieved. It is not too hard to see that at some point terror will enter the equation.

Historically, that is how all revolutions that sought equality degenerated into terror. Maybe at this juncture of history our sense of these dangerous possibilities is low and hope at what can be achieved with radical equality is high. It should not be: these are just contingent, time-dependent feelings. That may not always be so.

The problems of inequality are covered with greater rigour in Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon’s Why Does Inequality Matter? (Oxford University Press; 192 pages; £18.99). A rigorous work, Scanlon’s book peels off different layers of inequality, paying equal attention to status and political inequalities. These are more complex dimensions of inequality as compared to those of wealth and income. Because these are derived from the great differentials in wealth over long periods of time, they are hard to ameliorate. Scanlon, who along with scholars like the late Derek Parfit has spent considerable time and energy on exploring these themes, does not rank various forms of inequality: he is simply against the idea. But as with Moyn, he does not believe in sufficiency as an option even if he qualifies his disagreement carefully and in great detail.

No one can easily dismiss concerns about inequalities in a cavalier fashion. The trouble is that it is not clear what can be done.

Take status inequalities like caste—something that Scanlon delves into with great rigour. In India, which is home to this most durable of status inequalities, it seems no one is interested in ending it. If anything, caste is the lifeblood of the country’s democracy. Publicly and on paper, everyone— including the most conservative political parties—decry caste discrimination. But do they want to end it? The answer is an unqualified ‘no’: mobilisation on the basis of caste is the cheapest organisational device. Why bother with approaching individual citizens when you can aggregate them into a useful identity for your political purpose? Thus a contradictory state of affairs persists: on the one hand you can decry caste discrimination in the most radical terms, and on the other hand you make use of caste identity to win political office.

Professors Moyn and Scanlon can argue eloquently against inequality, but it is not clear if the world is interested in doing something about it.