Equality, Efficiency, and the Priority of the Worse Off
Egalitarian theories of justice hold that equality should be promoted. Typically, perfect equality will not be achievable, and it will be necessary to determine which of various unequal distributions is the most equal. All plausible conceptions of equality hold that, where perfect equality does not obtain, (1) any benefit (no matter how small) to a worst off person that leaves him/her still a worst off person has priority (with respect to equality promotion) over any benefit (no matter how large) to a best off person, and (2) any benefit to a worse off person (even if not a worst off person) has priority over a benefit of the same size to a better off person (even if not a best off person). Beyond that there is much disagreement. I shall defend two further conditions of adequacy for the assessment of equality for the purposes of egalitarian justice. One holds that any benefit (no matter how small) to a person who remains below the mean after the benefit is given takes absolute priority (with respect to equality promotion) over any benefit (no matter how large) to a person above the mean. Thus, like leximin, this condition gives absolute priority to a specified group of worse off people. Unlike leximin, however, the worst off individuals are not given absolute priority over all better off persons. Instead, individuals below the mean are given absolute priority over individuals above the mean. The second condition holds that when only individuals below the mean are affected, and the total number of individuals is constant, benefits should be distributed so as to maximize the total benefit. Thus, like utilitarianism, this condition takes efficiency to be paramount when distributing benefits among individuals below the mean. Unlike utilitarianism, however, this condition is silent about the provision of benefits to individuals above the mean. I show that these two conditions are compatible with the uncontroversial core conditions on equality as well as with many standard additional conditions.
Economics and Philosophy 16 (2000): 1-19