Taking Wellbeing Seriously

Mike Konczal wrote recently about Michael Walzer’s Spheres Of Justice, which argues that egalitarians should care less about money and more about social meaning.

Konczal offers a gloss:

Inequality in education access, health care, life expectancy, quality of jobs are intrinsically linked to inequality in wealth and income with our poor levels of economic mobility in this country. Fairness and equality in our court and criminal justice system are largely a function of wealth. This economic stratification creates larger rigidities and barriers – some by accident, some by design – to further mobility and equality of opportunities in non-economic spheres. In this sense it can address control and power by the elite in a way that Rawls doesn’t, and in a way that we could use right now.

Dara Lind sees it as essentially impossible to disentangle the two issues. I think this whole thing issue is best dealt with by simply adopting a more utilitarianish account of what matters in life.

If everyone earned the same amount of money but ten percent of the population suffered from chronic knee pain, that wouldn’t be a perfectly equal outcome. What’s more, merely guaranteeing the chronic knee pain sufferers access to affordable pain treatment wouldn’t address the inequality unless the treatments actually cured knee pain. If they only worked a little, it would only help a little. If they didn’t work at all, it wouldn’t really help at all. The issue with chronic pain isn’t that it occupies a separate sphere of justice, it’s that it’s so damn painful.

More generally, there’s more to life than money. If you introspect, you’ll see it’s easy to think up experiences you wouldn’t undergo in exchange for $10,000 a year in extra income. And I think everyone generally acknowledges this. Money can’t buy you love and all that. But the policy discussion sometimes fails to acknowledge that in an affluent society many people suffer from problems that are more serious than lack of money, and that the problems themselves are what need addressing. Poor health is worse than poor “access to health care.” It’s scandalous that the poorest Americans often need to live in such high crime neighborhoods, but what really stands out about the USA in this regard isn’t our housing policy or our gini coefficient but our very high murder rate.