What Is Political Inequality?

Sunday, August 14, 2022

What Is It

We all know our society is economically unequal: some people have more money and resources than others. But equality isn't just a matter of who has which things. Political equality involves respect and participation in the political process—but those aren't resources that can be divided up like pie. So what is political equality in the first place? How do we know when we've achieved it? And can we prevent politics from being an elite activity concentrated among the educated and wealthy? Josh and Ray push for equality with Margaret Levi, Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and co-author of A Moral Political Economy: Present, Past, and Future.



Josh Landy  
How do we stop politics from being a rich person's game?

Ray Briggs  
Would campaign finance reform be enough?

Josh Landy  
How can ordinary citizens get a seat at the table?

Comments (6)

Daniel's picture


Wednesday, July 6, 2022 -- 9:11 PM

Inequality in a political

Inequality in a political sense is a superficial phenomenon deriving from much more fundamental inequalities, such as those in the workplace. Even direct democratic systems, such as fifth century Athens, were still dominated by elite and aristocratic groups, such as those around Pericles. My claim here is that a just society doesn't need politics, to the point where one can assert that a society is unjust to the degree that it is political. Political self-assertion is necessarily preconditioned by a situation of social injustice, and political reaction is performed for the purpose of its structural preservation. So three terms are enlisted in an appropriate response to the title question: politics, society, and injustice. Equality and inequality, by contrast, are metaphors taken from arithmetic and contain no information about what's being described. A well run prison, for example, is in a mathematical sense a society in which all living space and resources are shared with perfect equality, but it is nevertheless undesirable in a majority of situations.

Politics, as indicated above, is either assertive or reactionary, and does not exist apart from the distinction between a comparatively small group or community of population managers and their associates, and a larger group of those who are managed or, if you like, between an oppressor class and an oppressed class. The question of political inequality should therefore be restated as one of inequalities which generate its need together with its use in Reaction. And since the phrase "inequality" should be completely dispensed with as obscurantist slang, the true question is: What's the relationship between social injustice and political activity?

Society, as collectively desirable proximate coexistence, can also then be considered a name for what sets up standards of justice so that there's agreement about where they're transgressed. The details of what these terms stipulate are not necessary for the claim that without them political representation or misrepresentation would be unintelligible. If we take our own society as an example, and observe that in a society governed in the interest of concentrated multinational wealth there is deployed in reaction to popular self-assertion extreme political means pinned to populist labels expressing sectarian divisions within the governed, then the question is excised from talking about politics at all, and instead asks, as has often been done in contexts of philosophy: What is a just society?

In short, discussion of political equality must be reduced to a discussion of social justice if it is to begin to approach the distant horizon of intelligibility. And this is not achieved by checking a box or waiving a few pompoms for one's favorite political team as spectators, but by making one's own decisions in one's community and workplace as active participants. From the perspective of one's interest in a good society in which participation is real and not symbolic, then, the question of politics is how to get rid of it.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, August 14, 2022 -- 2:00 PM

Listening to the show, I

Listening to the show, I would argue with Margaret's claim that the correct information is out there. There was little discussion of the silos and bubbles we are reinforcing with our trust networks. The accurate information is neither necessarily there (i.e., people don't know they don't know, and that others don't either) nor is there a means for everyone to access the knowledge that does exist. It would have been helpful to discuss strategies to break down silos/bubbles to reach political equality.

Some of the barriers we face are internally and externally oppressive, in our control, and visible if we look and act differently. That difference starts with our thought.

None of this detracts from the points raised.

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Daniel's picture


Wednesday, August 17, 2022 -- 12:58 PM

What were they? You've

What were they? You've denied an availability-claim in both its object and means of access, and then express disappointment in the last sentence of the first paragraph that nobody told you how to do it. Before making a claim that something doesn't exist, shouldn't you check first? How do you know that accurate information which contradicts commonly held spurious claims doesn't exist if you haven't looked to see if it's there? What are you basing the non-existence claim on? Take the commonly held notion that the U.S. Civil War was "fought over slavery", i.e. that the main cause of its occurrence was incompatibility between the goals of slavery-abolition and that of its preservation. This would make it a war over the rights of labor and not over the product surplus of that labor; or rather, over work and not product, or people and not cotton. Framed in this way, it is clear that the correct information is available, but it must be found in the field of economic interests rather than in the ethical undesirability of coerced labor, the prominence of which is used as propaganda inceptually.

In this way I surmise that you simply haven't framed the question correctly, which is why you haven't found anything. The second to last sentence above which recommends thinking about things which get in the way so that they're not identified with is indeed quite sound, but appears unrelated to the topic. Are you saying that if people would just think more about their shortcomings, then no one would need political equality in the first place?

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Daniel's picture


Saturday, August 20, 2022 -- 4:05 PM

Based on the contents of

Based on the contents of Professor Levi's discussion in the 8/14/22 broadcast alone, I take her position to be one of the compatibility of government-abolition with classical balance of power. Her argument can be divided into three parts:

1) Because the preservation and protection of the capacity to participate in the determination of institutional form must override in priority the preservation and protection of the exercise of that capacity, no demographic can be justifiably excluded from it merely because it is not used. Expressed differently, the universal ability to be heard by the group can never be given up just because some will always want to keep quiet, for the reason that it's the exclusion from being able to participate, and not the costs paid for participating unwisely, which generate conditions for rebellion.

2) This produces a tension between distribution and production, or how to divide things up and what's being divided. If one likes how a pie tastes, it might be a matter of relative indifference how big a slice one gets in comparison to others. But if one doesn't like it, it wouldn't matter if she/he gets the whole pie. And therein lies the tension between the wide range of possibilities of quantitative distribution (politically possible) and the comparatively narrow range of determination-capacity of product-quality, or what the pie is made of (decided pre-politically). That's the job of whoever rules already, standing outside of political determination.

3) The tension is thus resolved by simply taking the dominant governing factors outside of political input, which in turn provokes the countervailing movements through the courts whereby both legal and extra-legal means are used in the service of both legislative and judicial goals. The problem here though is that Congress can stop passing laws, tipping the balance of power to the courts which become increasingly political, frustrating social interpretation of precedent. The laws that are passed then become weapons against the goals of their supporters, and the court decisions that are made come to have the character of damage control to a politically threatened ruling class. In terms of legal determinations of the sociological pie, then, legislation devours its own supporters, just as revolution is said to devour its own children where organized violence comes to be included in the non-legal varieties of social reform.

It's this last point which expresses what in my view is the fundamental argument against government: Its civic use is weaponized against the citizenry by which its claims are justified, in the elements which threaten its private control. Margaret provides the example of the Referendum process, which begins with popular support but is absorbed by plutocratic groups to shift the tax burden away from consolidated business interests under the Libertarian (i.e. corporate-liberty) label.

With regards then to the question of what political inequality is, would it not be roughly accurate to say that it is coterminous with any participation in government at all?

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, August 21, 2022 -- 7:49 AM

Political inequality is much

Political inequality is much like contextual reality, in my opinion. Both change with circumstance and contingency. Contextual reality depends on interests, preferences, and motivations...the order of things may change insofar as their respective influences are weaker or stronger. Inasmuch as truth and reality are interwoven, with the big three, it is often tricky to discern which of them dominates. I, and others, have held that we make it all up as we go. The difference is this: the older version is metaphorical. My assertion of the same turn of phrase is literal.

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Daniel's picture


Monday, August 22, 2022 -- 2:34 PM

It may not be vicious, but

It may not be vicious, but that's definitely a logical circle. What's real depends on the context in which it is seen or characterized as such and being seen or characterized as such forms part of the context on which it depends. Being able to shuffle the causal or sequential order of contingent circumstances so that what's true and what's real don't contradict each other doesn't seem to escape it. All you've really done here is assert that reality is not what it's usually defined as (= what is true context-independently), in order to avoid a contradiction in terms if taken literally. Political inequality on the other hand is not contradictory, but rather tautological, as argued above. Because "political equality" by definition can't exist, or be anything "real", in your terminology, the phrase "political inequality" constitutes a kind of propaganda insofar as it contains the assumption that its opposite is possible. And that's true even in contexts where the opposite is believed to be possible, in refutation of your claim that this can change with new circumstances.

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