Friday, January 4, 2019

Freedom and equality

Nathan Heller, The Philosopher Redefining Equality, The New Yorker, Jan 7, 2019:
At fifty-nine, Anderson is the chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy and a champion of the view that equality and freedom are mutually dependent, enmeshed in changing conditions through time. Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice. She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society. Her work, drawing on real-world problems and information, has helped to redefine the way contemporary philosophy is done, leading what might be called the Michigan school of thought. Because she brings together ideas from both the left and the right to battle increasing inequality, Anderson may be the philosopher best suited to this awkward moment in American life. She builds a democratic frame for a society in which people come from different places and are predisposed to disagree.
A bit later:
In general, Anderson is outgoing when conversation turns to ideas and shy about other things. (“If you want to make her totally uncomfortable, tell her she has to go to a fancy function in a cocktail dress,” her husband says.) Now she cleared her throat noisily. “If you look back at the origins of liberalism, it starts first with a certain settlement about religious difference,” she said. “Catholics, Protestants—they’re killing each other! Finally, Germany, England, all these places say, We’re tired of these people killing each other, so we’re going to make a peace settlement: religious toleration, live and let live.”

She spread her hands wider. “Then something remarkable happens,” she said. “People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home, or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains?” She paused. “That is what it is to be free.”
To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down. Being homeless was an unfree condition by all counts; thus, it was incumbent on a free society to remedy that problem. A quadriplegic adult was blocked from civil society if buildings weren’t required to have ramps. Anderson’s democratic model shifted the remit of egalitarianism from the idea of equalizing wealth to the idea that people should be equally free, regardless of their differences. A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. “People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies,” Anderson wrote.
And so on. Read the rest for yourself.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

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