November 1, 2013 at 4:02 am

Equality and Public Policy Conference, Nov. 14-16

The George Washington Forum presents a conference on Equality and Public Policy  Nov. 14–16. The conference brings together leading scholars to consider equality as a social and political ideal guiding public policy.

Dr. Jerry Gaus

Dr. Jerry Gaus

The conference opens on Thursday, Nov. 14, with a keynote address by Gerald Gaus on The Egalitarian Species. at 7:30 p.m. in Baker 240/242.

“Humans are the egalitarian species: the evolution of humanity is to a surprising extent the tale of developing egalitarian social orders,” says Gaus in his abstract. “The question is whether our deeply-rooted egalitarian sentiments, developed in small hunter-gatherer societies, are in conflict with the ruled-based morality of our global market societies, regulating interaction among far-flung strangers.”

His paper “examines what we know about our evolved ‘egalitarian ethos,’ and its place in market societies. I point to important evidence that our deepest evolved sentiments do not oppose life under fair rules among independent, conditional, cooperators who insist on their equal status.”

Gaus is the James E. Rogers Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, where he has taught since 2006. Before coming to Arizona, he taught at Tulane, the University of Minnesota, the University of Queensland, the Australian National University and Wake Forest. He is the author of eight books, including, most recently, The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge, 2011), and more than six dozen articles and book chapters. He is currently at work on The Tyranny of the Ideal, a book to be published by Princeton University Press.

The conference will continue on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15-16. The Friday session runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. in Baker 240. The Saturday session runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in Baker 240.

George Washington ForumElizabeth Anderson (Michigan), Deirdre McCloskey (Illinois), George Sher (Rice), Scott Winship (Manhattan Institute), Steve Horowitz (St. Lawrence), Tom W. Bell (Chapman Law School) and a number of other scholars also will be presenting papers.

The event is open to the public and all are welcome to attend. Sessions are in Baker 240/242. For more information, email

Friday, Nov. 15

Session 1: 8:30 to 10:15 a.m.

Kristin Voigt and Gry Wester (McGill University): Relational Equality and Public Health

Abstract: In the recent debate about equality, several critics have expressed concerns that approaches that focus on the fairness of distributions miss “the point” of equality. “Relational” egalitarians propose a different way of thinking about equality, which focuses on social relations. In this paper, we consider what the relational perspective can add to our thinking about justice in health. We suggest that the relational perspective only has limited implications for the fair distribution of health. However, at the level of health policy and the strategies we pursue to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, relational considerations become highly relevant.

Steve Horwitz (St. Lawrence University): Inequality, Mobility, and Being Poor in America

Abstract: The conventional wisdom that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer overlooks three issues. A closer look at income mobility suggests the rich and poor vary from year to year and that there are many opportunities for poor folks to get richer. The shrinking middle class is because people are moving up and out rather than down and out. And if we look at measures of consumption, poor Americans are better off than ever, and better off than their middle class counterparts in the 1970s.

Session II: 10:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Elizabeth Anderson (University of  Michigan): Equality and Freedom in the Workplace: Recovering Republican Insights

Abstract: State regulation of employment relations is erroneously represented as interfering with freedom of contract. In fact, the fundamental terms of the capitalist labor contract cannot be determined by the will of the parties, but rely on a state-defined constitution of workplace governance supplied by corporate, property, and labor law. The default constitution is dictatorial under laissez-faire. This default cannot be justified by freedom of contract, property theory, or efficiency. Republican principles of constitutional design are relevant for designing alternative workplace constitutions that limit employer authority for the sake of workers’ freedom.

Sarah Skwire (Liberty Fund): Without Regard of Persons: Gender Equality, Theology, and the Law in the Writing of Margaret Fell

Abstract: The frequent use of constructions that imply and enshrine a top-down approach to rights that makes them appear to be inextricably a part of the “made order” of government regulation, legislation, and policy can be problematic, particularly for those who are concerned with equality. The suggestion of such a construction is that “the people” are not equal until the government makes them equal. What we lose when we adopt these constructions—or when we unthinkingly read right over them—is the radical voice of individuals asserting that their equality always already exists. That is the voice that we can recapture in the writings of the 17th century Quaker, Margaret Fell, who grounded her radical defense of gender equality in equally radical understandings of theological, spiritual, and political equality. And that is a voice that is well worth recapturing, not only for its historical radicalism, but also as a model for a modern day political rhetoric that puts the focus on actions and rights of individuals rather than governments.

Session III: 2 to 3:45 p.m.

Scott Winship (The Manhattan Institute): Has Rising Income Inequality Worsened Inequality of Opportunity?

Paul Weithman (Notre Dame University): Relational Equality and Inherent Stability

Abstract: Luck egalitarians take it be “an equal distribution of non-relational goods among individuals,” while relational egalitarians take it to be “a kind of social relation between persons—an equality of authority, status, or standing.” This difference goes hand-in-hand with another. For luck egalitarians, justification is “third personal.” “[M]ost relational egalitarians,” Elizabeth Anderson says, “follow a second personal or interpersonal conception of justification,” a conception she also refers to as “contractualist.”  I shall contend that even if a difference about justification is fundamental to the current dispute between luck and relational egalitarians, it is possible combine a third-personal conception of justification with the view that equality is relational and that first principles of justice apply to agents and institutions. Indeed, it is possible to offer both contractualist and third-personal justifications for the same such principles. Principles of justice are justified as such, according to contractualists, only if they can be stable. Looking at third-personal arguments for those principles brings to light the psychological claims some contemporary contractualists make about how those principles can be stabilized. And it shows quite clearly that even if a concern for stability is internal to contractualism, those particular claims are not. Showing that they are not internal to contractualism suggests that they are not internal to relational egalitarianism either. This conclusion, in turn, reminds us that there are other points in egalitarian space than those which are occupied in the current debate and that the occupants of some of those points have been relational egalitarians. It is important that the history of egalitarianism reflect this fact. I suggest that contractualism is itself is underpinned by a kind of moral faith that principles can be stabilized. This underpinning is one of the sources of contractualism’s distinctiveness, as can be seen from the consequences of repudiating its articles of faith.

Session IV: 4 to 5:45 p.m.

Deirdre McCloskey (University of  Illinios): Market-Tested Innovation and Supply is Ethical, and has Been Good for Equality

Abstract: Equality is a dubious social purpose, considering that pursuing it can–and often has–slowed the real enricher of the poor, modern economic growth. Taking the 25 percent of national income that the rich earn and giving it to the poor would raise the poor’s income by a tiny fraction of what honoring creative destruction has earned the poor since 1800: 9,000 percent increases instead of 25 percent.

Debra Thompson (Ohio University): What Lies Beneath: Equality and the Making of Racial Classifications

Saturday, Nov. 16

Session I: 8:30 to 10:15 a.m.

Govind Persad (Stanford University): Equality Over Time: Mobility, Security, and Economic Justice

Abstract: Since the economic crisis of 2008, policymakers and social scientists have pursued research into the causes and effects of socioeconomic mobility, and politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have emphasized mobility’s importance. But the emphasis on mobility in public debate often leaves it unclear why exactly we should value mobility. My paper explores how mobility relates to two kinds of equality: equality of opportunity (whether people have similar chances to succeed) and equality of outcome (whether people in fact succeed at similar rates). I argue that mobility can contribute to both, though it differs in interesting ways from either.

George Sher (Rice University): How Does Choice Justify Inequality?

Abstract: Luck egalitarians maintain that all inequalities that are due to luck are unjust, but that some inequalities that reflect the parties’ choices are not unjust. To defend this view, they must ground the choice-related inequalities they accept either in the demands of equality itself or else in some independent normative consideration that trumps or overrides equality. In the current paper, I first analyze, and then criticize, two prominent arguments of the latter sort.

Session II: 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

Tom W. Bell (Chapman University): What Can Corporations Teach Government About Democratic Equality?

Abstract: Democracies place great faith in the principle of one-person/one-vote. Business corporations and other private entities, in contrast, typically operate under the one- share/one-vote rule, allocating control in proportion to ownership. Why the difference? In times past, we might have cited the differing ends of public and private institutions. Whereas public democracies aim at promoting the general welfare of an entire political community, private entities aim at more specific goals, such as generating profits or managing a cooperative residence. As business entities have grown in size and in the range of services they provide, however, the distinction between public and private governance has grown blurry. Soon, entire “startup cities” may join residential cooperatives and homeowners associations in drawing their governing principles from private sources. How can private communities affirm the principles of democratic equality? By affording full protection to all rights holders, individuals and owners alike. The one-person/one-vote approach popular in political contexts works best at protecting the individual personal rights—freedoms of conscience, speech, and innumerable others—to which each of us has an equal claim. Corporate law’s one-share/one-vote rule works best at protecting the property rights of those who invest in a commonly owned community. This paper explains why a polity should offer both corrective and constructive democracy. Residents exercise corrective democracy in defense of their individual rights by submitting officials and laws to popular veto. Shareholders exercise constructive democracy in defense of their investments, choosing directors and managing polity governance. The result: a double democracy that combines the best features of public and private governance to give equal treatment to both the personal rights of individual residents and the property rights of shareholder owners. Respect for democratic equality demands nothing less.

Rich Vedder (Ohio University) and Daniel Bennett (Florida State University): Inequality and American Higher Education: History, Theory and Evidence

Abstract: It is conventional wisdom that higher education is a vehicle to promote income equality in the U.S. We explore that empirically, and find a more nuanced proposition is generally more valid. Specifically, when higher education was relatively small in the U.S., it almost certainly promoted income equality, but in recent years in many states it seems to promote inequality, implying there is some theoretical “optimum” amount of higher education where equality is maximized. We speculate some on reasons for this, and discuss in greater detail the empirical findings.

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