Knology Book Review: A Political Scientist Thinks About Economic Justice & Inequality

An economic policy approach based on the concept of luck and desert can level the playing field.

by Uduak Grace Thomas
Jun 29, 2020

Economic inequality in the US is rising. This was a key issue during the 2016 presidential election cycle and it has gained significant strength in the current one. A 2018 report from the Pew Research Center found that the gap in incomes between the richest and poorest US residents increased 27% from 1970 to 2016. That same study also found that income gaps across racial and ethnic groups remain and have widened in some instances. From proposals for student loan forgiveness to plans to provide monthly stipends to US taxpayers, suggested solutions for leveling the economic playing field are many and varied. But what if the underlying premise for thinking about the problem is flawed? That is the question at the heart of Chance, Merit, and Economic Inequality, a new book published by Palgrave Macmillan, which seeks to reframe the conversation around economic justice and how economic resources might be allocated.

The book’s author and Knology researcher, Dr. Joseph de la Torre Dwyer, offers a theory of economic justice based on luck, that he believes will level the playing field compared to the current economic landscape. Dwyer is well qualified to speak on the subject. He is a political scientist whose research looks at equality of opportunity with respect to labor market policies. He has studied municipal minimum wages, Federal Wage-Study, and federal basic income. Currently, he leads Knology’s Systems research area, and seeks to understand how to improve individual well-being by giving people greater control over their economic outcomes.

Dwyer began thinking about economic inequality and gender-based economic injustice as a graduate student. Midway through his graduate studies, he took a job with the economic opportunity team at Demos, a liberal political and economic think tank, that looks broadly at economic justice and policy. Over the course of a decade, the two research streams coalesced in Dwyer’s mind into a new way of thinking about economic justice, ways to address current inequality, and what a more just economic system might look like.

Some academics think about distributive justice from a “utilitarian” perspective that seeks to maximize individual welfare, Dwyer explains. Others tend to approach the question from an egalitarian perspective that prioritizes equality in the economic context on the basis of its morality. Dwyer’s book does draw on themes from both viewpoints, but is unique in that it steps back and considers how people think intuitively about resource allocation. He argues that most people apply a principle of desert – essentially, that they expect to receive what they deserve. Based on this thinking, Dwyer posits what he believes is a philosophically and politically defensible solution for more equal resource distribution that is administratively feasible and economically efficient.

Identifying sources for the book required the “kind of classic academics where you just go into the library and find good books that you know, starting from there and then branching out,” Dwyer said. Some of the authors who influenced his thinking include Louis Pojman and Owen McLeod. Also crucial to his arguments is John Roemer, the author of a book titled Equality of Opportunity, whose work straddles the fields of economics and philosophy. Dwyer also cites Shelly Kagan’s book the Geometry of Desert, as instrumental to his thinking about some of the nuances of the principle of desert.

The book starts off on a philosophical footing addressing principles of responsibility and what these entail as well as principles of desert and what people deserve. “I want to start with a first principles way of thinking about things,” Dwyer explains. Specifically, relative to economic justice, “what does it mean to be responsible for something and what does it mean to hold someone responsible for something? A lot of philosophers tend to think that you can’t really deserve something unless you are responsible so there has to be some connection between those two things.”

From this foundation, Dwyer then addresses the expected outcomes in a system where the principles of just deserts apply. “The next themes in the book are saying how does this square up with or come into conflict with equality of opportunity? I make the argument that if you like equality of opportunity, you are going to like this way of thinking about responsibility and desert because it gives you 100% robust equality of opportunity.”

He then goes on to show how his proposed framework is economically efficient. “I show that under at least certain scenarios, we can be sure that my way of thinking about desert is actually what economists would call their first best tax, which is to say, it is a tax with no economic distortions or with no economic deadweight loss.” Lastly, Dwyer argues that this approach actually maximizes individual freedom contrary to what some might think. “when you have perfect equality of opportunity even if you are born poor and we expect for various reasons that you would be poor statistically, you still have just as much chance to be the richest person in the whole economy. And even if I am born to Bill Gates, I still have just as much chance to be the poorest person.”

This book is largely written for academics but it should be of interest to policy makers tasked with making decisions that have national impact. Dwyer believes that the ideas shared in his book will have bipartisan appeal. Implementing the proposed framework would have implications for many of the programs currently in place to help people with few resources. In other words, if people are paid what they deserve, there may be fewer families accessing social services such as food stamps. “I am hoping that Republican and conservative thinkers will wrestle with the idea because it takes personal responsibility to its core and I hope that Democratic and progressive thinkers and activists will wrestle with it and recognize that this is giving me all the things that I want at the end – it’s just a different pathway.”

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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