On an old debate between Professors Daniel Bell, James Tobin and Robert Nozick about inequality.
(Rodrigo Peñaloza, 2014)
This was a debate published back in January 3rd, 1982, in The New York Times. Old as it is, it is nevertheless very much contemporary. Unfortunately, the thoughts about inequality nowadays are polluted by Marxian prejudices. Much of the debate about inequality in the field of Moral Philosophy is based on the Greek masters, specially Aristotle. The problem of the Marxian analysis, from my point of view, is not much the agreement on the importance of the issue, it is rather the way he analyses it. It is his approach to the problem. As Nozick emphasizes very well in his debate with Tobin, the very idea about who is poor after all is dependent on the mutability of needs, once we recognize that needs vary in time and space. This is exactly the point raised by Nozick.
Right in the beginning of his Ethica Nichomachea, Aristotle asserts that what is good and just admits of a great variability of opinion and that good and fair actions are so by way of convention, not by their own nature. Marxian approach departs from it by way of a radically different viewpoint, that is to say, that inequality is inherent to capitalism in a very substantial (and degrading) way. Aristotle seems to recognize that inequality is natural.
Even when mediaeval philosophers thought about justice on the basis of Aristotle, Cicero and others, no one ever took the pains to defend absolute equality as the concretization of fairness. The fact is, it is possible and actually very much better, to analyze the issue of inequality from a point of view that in no way resembles any of the ontological substracta of the Marxian analysis.
Anyway, back to the point, the criticisms Nozick raised on the basis of the Aristotlean concepts of needs and wants is pretty strong and the Marxian view is absolutely incompatible with the fact that needs are spontaneously determined by convention, and are not substantial. This is definitely one point modern Moral Philosophers elaborate more profoundly than Aristotle himself. This excerpt from the debate is illuminating about Nozick’s point:
“Prof. Nozick: It’s very difficult to know what people’s absolute needs are, as psychologists who study these things tell us. And, in fact, what would be called minimal needs now are not what people thought they were in earlier centuries. As the society becomes more and more prosperous, more things get defined as basic needs. There becomes a relative definition of poverty so that the lowest tenth of the population always counts as poor, no matter what. And for that reason, the poor will always be with us.”