There are arguments along Rawlsian lines that a certain degree of inequality is justifiable, because it is necessary to reward those gifted individuals who can improve the collective human condition to such an extent that even the very poorest are made better off than they would be in a more equal situation. But these arguments only enter into consideration after we have established the idea that the first and fairest way of distributing humanity’s finite resources is equally. Equality of resources should be the baseline, and any deviation from that equality should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Not being all that up with Rawls or any other philosopher I would actually change the argument being put forward there. We do not reward those with greater gifts. Or perhaps I should say that we should not. The logic of a market system does not work that way. We do indeed reward those who have improved the collective human condition though. This difference is rooted in the same unfairness that is being complained about. To steal an argument from Chris Dillow, Rooney’s abilities at playing football would have made him £25 a week 50 years ago. And nothing at all 150 years ago. It is simply pure blind luck that his talents evinced themselves in a generation where people are willing to pay him so much. Exactly the same is true of a philosopher born now, or in hunter gatherer times, a whizzo apps programmer today or 20 or 200 years ago.
So, it’s definitely unfair that people have the talents that the particular technologies of the day enable them to excel. And we could indeed call that unfair: but we do it not to reward those with those talents. We do it to encourage the next group of people who might be able to improve the human condition. It’s a matter of incentives (recall, in economics the first thing is that incentives matter). Simon Cowell is not rewarded for the work that has been done by Simon Cowell. He is rewarded in order to encourage the next moron with a plan to entertain the proles with pap.
But that’s not going to change the real point here:
And this brings us back to charity. If you accept that chosen inequalities are morally objectionable, then any situation where one person has surplus wealth that they can choose to give to someone in need of that wealth, in turn becomes morally objectionable. Charity becomes an issue of private virtue and public vice. On an individual basis, charity is laudable, but when politicians start praising charity or calling for a ‘big society’, we should be more condemnatory. Politicians should be in the business of making a better society, not in perpetuating the inequalities of existing society. The better society is one with robust and non-voluntary social supports, not soup kitchens.
But what if private charity works better than the bumblings of the politicians? For example, the RNLI: does it work better or worse than the Coastguard? Hospices: why does the NHS leave to the private charitable sector this part of health care? Food banks: some to much of their food comes from the supermarkets themselves shifting on soon to be out of date stock. Have we seen politicians manage to achieve this as yet?
What if private charity is actually more efficient at alleviating human suffering?
At which point to trump Rawls I offer you Burke. It is the little platoons that make society work. The Boy Scouts is a better organisation that the Young Pioneers or the Hitler Jugend.