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Equality - Overview - Capitalism And Its Critics

economic political inequalities international

Critics of free-market capitalism attack these claims on philosophical, historical, and practical bases. Many question whether indeed the market is a just distributor of the economic products and economic burdens of a society—and therefore whether economic inequalities are just in and of themselves. More generally, non-Marxist critics such as Michael Walzer want a society in which no social good "serves or can serve as a means of domination" (Spheres of Justice, p. xiv; see also Lindblom, 1977, 1982). Other thinkers approach concerns over economic inequalities from a more ethical perspective that incorporates the Kantian and social contract approaches to liberalism. Most notable among these is John Rawls, who contends that to correct the inequalities that arise in society we should begin with a thought game in which we imagine ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance," not knowing what circumstances we will be born into, what attributes and handicaps we will be born with, or what fortune will bring us in life. If we did not know what our situation was, how would we arrange society and what programs to remedy inequality would we propose? He contends that as rational beings we would favor an initial position in the social contract that is basically equal and maintains some meaningful degree of fairness. According to Rawl's difference principle, inequalities are justified only to the extent that they are designed to bring (and actually bring) the greatest possible benefit to the least advantaged among us.

Generally, political thinkers today also debate whether equality of opportunity—assuming it truly exists in advanced capitalist regimes—is indeed enough to ensure political equality, which all in liberal democratic regimes agree is necessary for a polity to be just. Many observers of U.S. politics today, including some who support a free-market capitalist economy, worry that the wall separating political from economic inequalities is regularly breached. One of the most obvious ways in which the wall is breached is through the financing of political campaigns by private, independent economic actors. Such contributions amount to a powerful form of political influence with which it is difficult for ordinary citizens to compete and which undermines the political equality on which democracy rests.

A less obvious way in which the wall between economic inequalities and political equality is breached is described by Charles Lindblom. For Lindblom, even when corporations do not gain unequal political influence through campaign contributions, they enjoy a "privileged position" in policy-making because of their very real ability to shape economic outcomes. For example, polluting industries have special leverage in lobbying Congress not to enact stricter air-quality standards because they can convincingly claim that the effects of such standards would cause them to lay off workers.

The concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, then, may translate quite directly into a concentration of political power in the hands of the same few. Even if economic inequalities are tolerable in and of themselves, most agree that political equality is sacrosanct and that the translation of economic inequality into political inequality is a serious problem when or if it occurs. These problems with economic inequality exist alongside any threats to good democratic citizenship discussed by civic republican thinkers, such as the tendency of rule by one class in its own interest, which worried Aristotle, and the threat to democratic stability posed by a class with nothing to lose, as Jefferson discussed.

Another, more recent set of questions has been raised by those concerned with global inequalities—especially those inequalities between the economically advanced countries and the less wealthy nations of the world—who point out that limiting discussions of equality and remedies to address perceived inequalities within the nation-state are not appropriate to a highly economically interconnected world. The international political economic environment has inherited inequalities of the colonial era, to which are added the unequal outcomes of international goods and capital markets and the privileging of economically advanced countries by the major international political economic institutions, principally the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet most of the mechanisms by which we address socioeconomic inequalities within a nation-state are inappropriate or impractical for use in addressing global inequalities.

Related to these concerns are challenges raised by the rise of international governance institutions—the above-mentioned political economic institutions, the United Nations, regional international organizations, bodies set up to address specific issues, and so on. If the notion of equal representation is fundamental to liberal democratic politics, how ought it be applied to international governance bodies? Generally today such bodies give representation either to each nation-state equally (as with the United Nations) or in some proportion to financial contribution (as with the IMF). The former approach is a holdover from the early days of the modern nation-state, when the state was identified with a monarch who was being represented in the international realm. However, liberal democracy is based on representation being roughly proportional to population of districts or regions—but this could privilege the elites of populous but nondemocratic states. Basing representation on IMF contributions, many argue, simply reinforces the global economic and political advantages already possessed by the advanced capitalist regimes.

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