Paradoxes of Equality

In Local Justice, Jon Elster discusses various principles that guide the allocation of resources in local settings. One of the common principles is “absolute equality,” which he thinks is defensible on various grounds:

“Even when there is no consensus that equality is inherently fair, it is often the only focal point for the resolution of conflicts. The debate over the suffrage illustrates this proposition. Given the competing claims to superiority of various social groups (the rich, the educated, the well-born, the old, the male, and so on), universal (and equal) suffrage was the only outcome that could command stable agreement. Also, egalitarian principles can be sustained by utilitarianism: If the recipients have equal utility functions with respect to the good (and it has decreasing marginal utility), total utility is maximized by dividing it equally” (70).

Yet he also recognizes that the demand for absolute equality can produce some paradoxical or at least non-maximal outcomes.

For instance, “Equal and universal allocation often requires dilution of the good.” He illustrates with reference to education in various European countries: “The French principle of universal admission to nursery school would be impossibly costly if these schools were required to conform to Norwegian standards for the ratios of teachers and cubic feet to children. (The reason officially given for these high standards is that anything less good would be unacceptably bad. The real explanation is that they are upheld by a coalition of nursery school teachers and those parents who have already ensured a place for their children.)” (71).

The Norwegian commitment to absolute equality also affects immigration policy: “Norwegian immigration policy is to admit very few foreign workers. One reason often adduced is that Norway should not admit foreign workers unless they can achieve the same standard of living (jobs, housing, welfare services) as that of the average Norwegian. Norway should not be split into an A-team of Norwegian-born citizens and a B-team of foreign-born ones. The argument overlooks the fact that most potential immigrants would rather be on the Norwegian B-team than on the A-team in their own country” (151).

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