To level down or not to level down – that is … actually quite a difficult question

Levelling down – making some people worse-off and no-one else better-off – is not looked upon favourably. And how could you prefer others being worse-off if you remain exactly as you were before? Let me try to persuade you that things are more complex than they appear.

You might think that it is intrinsically important that we have similar kinds of lives such that if one person experiences a set-back so should others. We will call this the Musketeers’ Principle (‘one for all, and all for one’). Here is an example: 

The game: your children are squabbling about who is to go first at some game. You have no coins etc. so you have to choose one of your children or abandon the game. As you can think of no fair way to do this, you abandon the game.

If the children would rather to play the game – even those who don’t go first – you have made them all worse-off rather than make one of them feel they are your favourite. You are levelling down.

Thick moral relationships

The game involves a family. Idealizing a little, the family involves a set of long-term and very meaningful (or ‘thick’) moral relationships that are justified in terms of the interests of the children and parents. Within this context, fair treatment is very important so levelling down can be acceptable.

But should we concede that the Musketeers’ Principle applies within the family but deny that it is relevant to our politics (which, after all, is where levelling down is most controversial).

Is politics about thick moral relationships? 

Let’s imagine two extremes: at one end is an idealized family – the Waltons perhaps. At the other is a group of self-sufficient hermits who interact only when it is unavoidable. At which point between these two extremes should we locate a modern political society?

Your answer here will affect when (if ever) you think levelling down is desirable. Your answer will be informed by your other political and moral commitments. The more important you think shared ‘social glue’ is, the more prepared you will be to countenance levelling down. If you think social glue is irrelevant, or harmful, you will take a different view.

Political disagreement is the norm in modern societies so we should not expect any consensus here. But from this we should not infer that anyone who favours levelling down must be an envious reprobate. We should expect some people to recommend levelling down when we think it is inappropriate.

Things that look like levelling down but aren’t

Apart from what might be a small class of cases in which levelling down is acceptable, there are situations that look a lot like levelling down but are not. Remember, for something to count as levelling down some people must end up worse off and no-one else better-off.

Table 1 lists five alternative situations for three different people (John, Mary and Joseph). We will start by focusing on S1-S3 (we bring in S1* and S3* below). Which of S1-S3 is better or worse? This might help us decide:

BadEffects: Over-time the significant inequality in S3 causes Joseph to come to see John as somehow inferior. John is talentless, or feckless; or just insufficiently like Joseph to warrant the same kind of respect. This becomes public knowledge and John loses friends and becomes socially isolated; his well-being falls.

TABLE 1 John Mary Joseph
Situation 1 (S1) 8 8 8
Situation 2 (S2) 8 12 16
Situation 3 (S3) 8 12 50
Situation 3* (S3*) 6 12 52
Situation 1* (S1*) 13 13 13

If we should not choose S3 because of BadEffects this is because S3 will lead to something like S3*. In S3* the worst-off person (John) is worse-off than in any of S1 to S3.

You may reject S3 for this reason but levelling down has nothing to do with it. You might just think that the worst-off get some kind of priority. They should not be made worse-off. But if S3 leads to S3* then in choosing S3 you are making John worse-off.

We are left with S2 and S1. You might choose S2. But you can choose S1 and find levelling down repugnant. You may think GoodEffects is true:

GoodEffects: where everyone is equally well-off a positive ethos is created. Over-time, this increases the psychic well-being, and so welfare, of everyone.

If GoodEffects is true you may choose S1 over S2 because S1 leads to S1*. This is not levelling down either: in S1* someone (Joseph) is worse-off (compared to S2-S4) but both Mary and John are better-off than in all other situations.

Some people may still opt for S3. They may think BadEffects or GoodEffects won’t happen. But – and this is the key point – their views on the acceptability of levelling down are neither here nor there.

Is it ever acceptable for politicians to level down?

As Bad and GoodEffects show, politicians may recommend something that looks like levelling down but is in fact something else. They may think that equality will increase everyone’s well-being (or just some people’s). They may be wrong about this but they are not levelling down.

At other times, politicians may think society’s thick moral relationships – its social glue – requires the application of the Musketeers’ Principle. They might be wrong here too but they are not obviously wrong. It’s time to give levelling down a fair hearing.

1 thought on “To level down or not to level down – that is … actually quite a difficult question

  1. Pingback: Tax the bankers (but not for the reason you think) | Philosophy and Politics

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