1. When inequality goes to work

Bill Gates walks into a bar. A dozen or so clients concentrate on their various drinks. Mr. Gates orders a small bottle of mineral water and drinks it. What happens ?

First, all measures of unequal distribution of tangible goods, notably income, wealth and perhaps also position, hit the roof. The other customers of the bar become no poorer, but Bill Gates is thousands of times richer than they.

Second, he has consumed a bottle of mineral water. It is no longer available to anybody. Arguably, if somebody else also wants to drink mineral water, another bottle can be drawn from stock. However, the stock has to be replenished by producing an extra bottle to restore the status quo. Producing the extra bottle absorbs resources that cease to be available for the variety of purposes that persons other than Mr. Gates may have. Mr. Gates has absorbed a resource cost.

Third, many out of the ordinary thoughts flash through the minds of those customers of the bar who recognise Bill Gates. Some think that this makes their day which promised to be pretty boring without finding themselves leaning at the same counter as the great man. Others will wonder whether the world is really fair. Yet others will feel sure that it is not, and in fact violates a definite moral order rooted in equality.

2. Believing in what suits us well

In any unequal distribution of income among persons, the average is necessarily higher than the median. This, in turn implies that more than half of the number of persons would have a higher income if the gap between the average and the median income were reduced by making the distribution less unequal. There is a countless number of possible distributions in which every recipient with a below-average income could be made better off by redistributing to them some of the higher than average incomes.

It is a fair guess that everybody having below-average income has an instinctive understanding that he would be a gainer, if such a redistribution were in fact realised. It so happens that with the collective choice rule that makes the majority decisive, rich-to-poor redistribution is within the grasp of the majority. While there may be contingent reasons from time to time why the majority may not chose to redistribute in its own favour, the attraction of doing so is a constant and will prevail or re-emerge over time.

For at least a part of the potential majority brazenly profiting from the collective choice rule that favours it is not all together comfortable, for it is too close to an attitude of shameless selfishness. To restore self-respect, the majority mind feels comfortable with a belief that material equality in a community is morally superior to inequality and should be considered as the proper motivation for a collective choice of a distribution. Karl Marx for once did not drown one of his shrewd insights in almost meaningless verbiage when he said that existence determined consciousness; the desire to appropriate the goods of the rich is at the bottom of the conviction that the goods do not by rights belong to the rich, but to the poor.

There is, then, an instinctive need for a moral theory justifying ever greater equality so that collective choices of redistribution should both enhance the material welfare of the majority and also satisfy its self-image of rectitude.

One large class of such theories is derived from the axiom “God created all men equal”. This axiom is subconsciously employed both by those who believed in God, by those who do not, yet have in mind some Superior Being responsible for the way the world works, or even by people who decline any such belief but never the less reason as if a state of affairs were an intended rather than a random result. Each of these versions conceives of distribution as conforming, or failing to conform, to a metaphysical idea.

The axiom that equality is an intended outcome leads to two alternative results, both pathetic and hardly possible to defend.

Every man has literally countless descriptive features many of which are unique to the person, while others are shared with other persons. Every man is born with five fingers on each hand. Every human being has a sense of shame and a sense of humour. Looking hard enough we may find other characteristics which human beings share equally, or at least nearly so. Never the less, these are dwarfed by vastly different inclinations, talents, and characters that make him different from any other person. At best, every man may be equal to every other in a very few defining features out of the countless ones that define him. It is possible to understand the equality axiom to mean “every man has five fingers on each hand” and also to search for other features in which such equality may be detected. In the face of the kaleidoscope of features characterising a man the handful in which he may be the same as other men, let alone every man, cannot possibly mean that every man has been created equal. In an earlier paper, “On Treating Like Cases Alike”,1 I took the radical position that the maxim “treat like cases alike” is commanding the impossible, for each case is necessarily different enough from every other case to justify its being a “case”. Identical features among cases are like an archipelago of islets in an ocean of inequalities. Two infamous attempts to dry the ocean and leave only firm land have been made by Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot who tried to exterminate the bearers of individual features and allow only a mass approximating draft animals to survive. Despite their best efforts Mao and Pol Pot are no longer regarded as great social engineers. John Rawls’s “original position” could be understood as an abstract analogy of the Mao-Pol Pot attempt to remove individual endowments by hiding them under the “veil of ignorance”.

The other reason why the axiom cannot lead to any proposition that would permit egalitarianism to be taken seriously is that if there had been any intent to create equal men, it must have been a feeble one, for in fact even identical twins differ, while the immense majority of humanity consists of persons who are different, and in crucial features radically different from one another. We cannot have much interest in an axiom, ringing solemnly as it may do, that is in such flagrant contradiction to the evidence.

In conclusion, looking for metaphysically based requirements of equal material distributions is unrewarding and in the nature of the case could hardly be expected to be otherwise. Substantial inequalities in a distribution do not morally condemn it any more than they would morally warrant it. As such, they are morally irrelevant. In other words, as far as moral theory can reach, the burden of proof lies with those who want distribution to be egalitarian.

3. “Social Justice”, a Treacherous Pleoasm

If the “social” in “social justice” is not a redundant pleonasm, it must mean that there is a justice called social that is distinct from “common or garden justice” and which may also contradict it. For this to be the case, however, social justice must have, as its content, a set of rules which differ at least in part from the set of rules—conventions, laws, and precedents—that constitute ordinary justice. Social justice may have no more than one rule, but it must have at least one. To say that it is social will not do.

In the last quarter century or so, the public has taken the habit of using “social justice” as a criterion to be applied to cases that are not contentious in terms of the rule system that governs ordinary justice, but undecided and almost certainly requiring remedy. “Social justice” makes judgments and prescribes remedies where ordinary justice finds no occasion to do either. “Social justice” claims the competence and power to appropriate property to which you have clear title under the rules of justice. The intriguing point in this other wise common place account is that “social justice” has in fact no rules at all but makes its judgments by the very simple expedient of comparing a given case with what the case should conform to in a world of equal distributions. “Social justice,” in other words, could not tolerate Bill Gates being so much richer than all the other customers in the bar and at whose counter they are all drinking beer or mineral water.

The totally unconscious sleight of hand by which “equal” smoothly changes its name to “socially just” and puts on its garb, brilliantly transforms something that is at best controversial to something else that is self-evident. You can argue that whether “equal” is superior to “unequal” depends on the merit of the case and that “unequal” is in itself irrelevant; but you cannot possibly argue that “just” is not self evidently superior to “unjust”. If it were not superior, we could not and would not call it “just”. It is this brilliant transformation that elsewhere I called the “Indian Rope Trick”,2 in which a rope is thrown up into the air and stays up to let the apprentice magician climb up it.


“On Treating Like Cases Alike”, in Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), pp. 170-85.

“Equalities, the Claims of Social Justice, and the Indian Rope Trick,” in Social Justice and the Indian Rope Trick. Edited by Hartmut Kliemt (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ), pp. 3-32.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.