Saturday, 29 March 2014

What is the value of (even fair) equality of opportunity in an unjust society?

People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled 'Who Gets the Best Jobs?', about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:

And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.

I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose to individuals' strive to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls' principle of fair equality of opportunities (henceforth FEO) requires this: '[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.' The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.

One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one's family of origin determines one's chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone's life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents' money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserve to reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.

Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.

You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be most often false in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, 'good enough' will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.

An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.

One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.

Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls' theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?

So it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon: An unjust system, how should individuals act?

In Lebanon the law covering the work of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) is deeply unjust. The situation of MDWs in Lebanon and the Middle East has been described to be a “little better than slavery”. That the law and practice should be reformed is clear. Whether this will happen any time in the near future is much less clear. What I want to focus on in this blog post is the question of how individuals who object to the law and practice should act.
A brief background: There are an estimated 200,000 MDWs employed by Lebanese families. The vast majority are women from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Nepal. MDWs are employed on short-term contracts. They are admitted into Lebanon on work visas that link them to a specific employer (a sponsor) and obliges them to live at the home of their employer. Their contracts are not covered by Lebanese labour law. This means they are excluded from entitlement to the Lebanese minimum wage guarantees, maximum number of working hours, vacation days and any compensation for unfair termination of contract. The contracts the migrants sign in their home countries with recruitment agencies are not recognized in Lebanon. Upon arrival they sign a contractual agreement (in Arabic), binding them to a specific employer (sponsor) often with different terms than the contract they signed home. The fact that their stay in the country is tied to their employer means they have practically no room for negotiating the terms of the contract. The government has recently imposed a standard contract for employing MDWs but it is far from being fairand is in any case poorly enforced. The facts are that there is a high incidence of abuse against MDWs. This ranges from "mistreatment by recruiters, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, forced confinement to the workplace, a refusal to provide any time off for the worker, forced labor, and verbal and physical abuse"
                                                       Source: Al-Akhbar (
The question: International organizations and more recently local NGOs have been advocating and proposing reforms. Meanwhile, what should individuals do?  They should take a clear stance in favor of the reforms, support NGO initiatives and awareness campaigns and combat attitudes of racism. That much seems obvious. A more difficult question, I find, is whether individuals ought to
  (A) refrain from employing MDWs as long as the practice is unjust; or 
  (B) employ MDWs while individually applying the terms and conditions that a fair law would  require.
On reason in favor of (A) is that employing MDWs counts as contributing to sustaining an unjust practice. One can easily avoid participating in the system as there is no sense in which refraining from employing an MDW imposes an unreasonable cost on individuals. Additionally, even if one could improve the conditions through individual arrangements with the MDW herself/himself (the vast majority of MDWs in Lebanon are women), one has no control over the other dehumanizing factors starting with the recruitment procedures in their home countries. Moreover, it is not only the contractual framework that is unjust. The justice system offers little protection, and a biased media and widespread racism make it the case that MDWs are highly vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. I find this position rather convincing, but I also have the worry that it seems to be the easy way out.
I also think there are strong arguments in favour of (B). One can point out that the vast majority of MDWs migrate to escape severe poverty and send most of their earnings back home (remittances were estimated at $90million dollars in the first half of 2009; and remittances make up a high shareof the GDP of some countries).[1] Surely, it is better to offer them employment under fair conditions, notwithstanding the objections above, especially when noting that they are going to seek employment in Lebanon anyhow? The difficulty with this line of argument, however, lies in the host of tricky questions it raises. To mention only some, should one ensure that her prospective employee was not coerced (or misinformed) into taking up the job in her home country?  If so, when does the cost of doing so become unreasonable? What counts for a fair wage and working conditions? Is that the country’s minimum wage? What if someone cannot afford paying the fair wage? Does that mean one should opt for (A)?
These questions raise a difficulty for the following reason: if the rationale behind choosing (B) over (A) is that (B) improves on some person’s conditions and as such reduces the harm whereas (A) merely allows the harm to happen, then any improvement on the current conditions, no matter how small, would justify (B). This seems problematic. My intuition, is that one should try to maximally provide what ideal conditions would require. Take the example of wages for instance. I am assuming that determining what counts as a fair wage, whether equal or higher than the minimum wage, is not very complicated. Now, if the ideal wage exceeds what one is willing to pay for the service of an MDW, then one should not necessarily opt for (A) but rather pay the maximum amount beyond which the service is no longer attractive. This would imply, I presume, that people with higher incomes should pay higher wages. The assumption here, of course, is that individuals are genuinely interested in making the right ethical choice.
I am not sure I can fully defend the above intuition. Therefore, I would like to hear your views on this. I find the choice between (A) and (B) difficult, and this is a dilemma faced by many friends and family members home.

[1] Still trying to find more recent figures!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Supply, investment, and the allocation of scarce goods: How not to argue against rent control

Access to affordable housing is widely recognized as a basic right or, at the very least, an important moral interest. At the same time, residents of many major cities are faced with spiralling housing costs. London provides a particularly striking example. During the last year alone, average rents in London rose by more than 10 percent. Since this figure describes an aggregate trend, rent increases faced by individual tenants are often significantly higher. (When the last flat that I lived in changed its owner, the rent went up by 30 percent, notably without any changes to the condition of the property.) In light of this situation, it is no surprise that calls to address the problem of rising rents have become louder

One straightforward way of addressing the problem would consist of policies that place legal limits on the extent to which rents may be increased. Yet, the idea of rent control faces outspoken opposition. Opponents often defend their view by pointing out that rising rents have an underlying cause in the shortage of supply of housing in a given area. Constraining rents, they argue, does nothing to alter the shortage of supply or, worse, exacerbates it by reducing the returns on investment for property developers, thus undermining the economic incentives for an increase in supply. This line of argument, however, appears unconvincing. 

Shortages of supply in housing cannot easily be solved in the short term and are partly determined by geographical factors that cannot be altered at all. To the extent to which rent control policies fail to address the underlying problem of supply without worsening it, why should they not be considered as an interim measure? It is, of course, easy to conceive of policies that would further exacerbate the problem, for example if they took the shape of absolute rent ceilings that would make it impossible for developers to recoup their investment. There are, however, obvious policy alternatives that would place limits on rents and rent increases while being flexible enough to ensure a sufficient return on investment. In fact, if policies were structured such that returns on investment in new developments are higher than returns on investment in existing properties, they could create additional incentives for the construction of new homes, rather than undermining them. The very lack of rent controls, in turn, can be seen as compounding the imbalance between supply and demand in that it creates demand for existing properties on the part of speculative investors that would not exist if rent controls limited the returns on speculative investment. 

A further prominent argument against rent controls, even if understood as second-best or interim measures, relies on the appeal of free markets as a mechanism for the allocation of scarce goods. If a good is in short supply and prices are left to move freely, they will rise up to the point at which an equilibrium is reached between the amount of goods available and the amount demanded at the price in question. From the point of view of economic theory, this process is often considered to be attractive on the basis that it ensures that scarce goods are allocated to those who value the good most highly. If the price was artificially kept low, in contrast, the allocation of goods would be determined by factors that may be less normatively appealing or left to pure chance. Applied to the present context, if there is a shortage of housing in a given location, would it not be a morally attractive outcome if tenants with the strongest preference for the location would get to live there? 

Maybe it would. As an objection to the regulation of real-world housing markets, however, the argument is fundamentally flawed. The claim that equilibrium prices allocate goods to those who value the good most highly is plausible only in conjunction with the idealised assumption that the bidding parties are roughly equal in their ability to pay. In a real-world context in which potential tenants differ significantly in their wealth and thus their ability to pay, differences in willingness to pay rent cannot be taken as a direct reflection of the subjective value that a give property has to them. Since the absence of rent control measures does nothing to ensure that housing is allocated according to strength of preference, the appeal to this allocative ideal cannot serve as an objection against rent controls. 

In the absence of other arguments, the controversy about rent controls appears to boil down to a conflict between the interest in affordable housing on the one hand, and the interest of property investors on the other. It seems clear to me that the interest in affordable housing is the morally weightier one. This is not meant to deny that investments made under existing rules may give rise to legitimate expectations. Honouring such expectations, however, should not prevent us from changing rules that apply to future investments.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Higher Education Pay Disputes and Industrial Action

It has recently been announced that University pay for academic and senior professional staff in UK universities has fallen by 13% in real terms since 2009, despite students’ tuition fees having trebled over the same period. The University and College Union (UCU) assert that a consequence of this is that pay for academic and senior professional staff ‘will fall still further behind the cost of living’. In response to this, members have pursued industrial action in order to attempt to secure fairer pay offers. Should we support this industrial action?

I think that there are four types of reasons that can be offered in defence of supporting the strikes, though I am unsure of how decisive any of these are, even in combination. The first reason is the one most explicit in the UCU’s literature. It relates to the fact that academic and senior professional staff ‘are being asked to work harder and take home less money to their families year after year’. This is thought to be particularly objectionable given the vast pay increases witnessed by Vice-Chancellors and Principals. This reason is a poor one. The vast majority of academic and senior professional staff in universities live very comfortable lives, getting paid generous salaries for work that they in general enjoy doing. In essence, I simply struggle to understand how an academic who earns an annual salary of £30,000+, which is comfortably above the average in the UK, can have that much of a complaint against being asked to work harder and take home less. 

A second reason relates more specifically to the pay of junior academic staff and graduate students. These people, who typically take on the brunt of teaching, are notoriously under-paid. Perhaps this provides an argument in defence of supporting the strikes. I am not convinced by this argument either. My sense is that junior academics and graduate students are in general very talented people who have many more opportunities open to them than most. I appreciate that getting by can be tough, but when they complain about the state of their pay my gut reaction is to say ‘Well, if you don’t like it, do something else!’. To those with some familiarity with contemporary political theory, I am tempted to say that academia is in an important sense just like an expensive taste.

A third defence relates to the pay of non-academic members of staff including, for example, the pay of cleaners, porters, administrators, etc. There is a much stronger cases in defence of protecting further their interests. The problem with this, though, is that, as far as I can tell, this is not one of the aims of recent industrial action. Notably, for example, the UCU represent only academic and senior professional staff in UK universities and much of their literature discussing these issues makes no reference to the pay of non-academic members of staff. It is not clear, therefore, the extent to which the strikes will further this goal.

The fourth reason is suggested by this statement made by the UCU: ‘If the pay cuts don’t stop and the universities do not start to invest some of the amassed money into tackling the issue of falling pay, the quality and reputation of our higher education system will suffer’. On this reading, the justification for industrial action is not (principally) self-interest; rather it is partly out of a general concern to protect quality in higher education. (The fact that those on strike stand to gain financially from doing so is simply a convenient coincidence!) In order for this justification to prove decisive, it must be both that quality in education is (strongly) correlated with the pay of academic and senior professional staff, and that this would be the best (feasible) use of the money. Both of these claims can be doubted. 

As someone who considers themself on the political left, I am generally sympathetic to the use of industrial action. However, in this case, I am yet to be persuaded. What do you think?