Houston, TX 77005
3:00 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, 2013
On Campus | Alumni
I begin, in Chapter 1, by spelling out my preferred conception of political equality. Two people are political equals insofar as they have the same amount of political power – where political power is understood as the ability to get what one wants in the political arena. This conception is preferable to its competitors because it can accommodate both the moral and amoral dimensions of politics. I then turn to the question of how political power ought to be distributed. Many have argued that it ought to be distributed equally. Call this view political egalitarianism. Arguments for political egalitarianism come in two varieties: arguments from moral equality and arguments from legitimacy. Arguments from moral equality, which are the focus of Chapter 2, claim that everyone is owed an equal share of political power simply by his or her status as a person of equal moral worth. I reject this claim because achieving an equal distribution of political power can actually prevent us from treating some people as persons of equal moral worth – by frustrating their interest in living autonomously, for instance. Arguments from legitimacy, which are the focus of Chapter 3, claim that a political institution is legitimate if it promotes some value(s), and that the best way to promote the relevant value(s) is through an equal distribution of political power. I question both steps of such arguments. Not only are the theories of legitimacy upon which they rely implausible, but I doubt that an equal distribution of political power is the best means of promoting the value(s) they invoke. My positive argument for sufficientarianism – the view that it does not matter if some have less political power than others, so long as everyone has enough – comes in Chapter 4. I argue that sufficiency is a more attractive distributive ideal than equality because it is more consistent with the demand that we advance everyone’s interests equally. How political power is distributed affects how well or poorly values such as autonomy, fairness, and personal responsibility are promoted. How well or poorly these values are promoted in turn affects the degree to which the interests of individuals are advanced. But it affects different individuals differently, since they have different interests and are in different circumstances. Egalitarianism is not sensitive to this fact; it says that everyone should have the same amount of power. Sufficientarianism, by contrast, says that political power should be distributed in whatever way allows each person’s interests to be advanced equally. I argue that those who defend equality in this context tend to take an overly simplistic view of the relationship between how much political power someone has and how well his or her interests are likely to be advanced in the political arena; they assume that the more power one has, the better one's interests will be advanced. But this assumption is false, for two reasons. First, different people have different interests, and different interests can require different amounts of power to be advanced. (Advancing my interest in autonomy may require me to have more power than does advancing my interest in fairness, say.) Second, the relationship between one’s share of political power and the advancement of one’s interests is not direct; it is mediated by social institutions. How well your interests are advanced has more to do with the way the institutions of your society are set up than it does with how much political power you have. Therefore, it is a mistake to think that an equal distribution of power will lead to the equal advancement of everyone's interests.