Distributing show and tell: A thought experiment on egalitarianism and disparity

Imagine a classroom where there are 20 students in the class. Once a week, it is time for show and tell. In this world, let’s call this world 1, every student has an equal amount of time to participate

Now imagine world 2. In world 2, 10 children are given twice as much time to participate. However, the other 10 get no time to speak. But the teacher ensures that of the 10 children, 5 are girls and 5 are boys. The teacher also makes sure that at least 1 child will be of a different skin colour, ethnicity and so on.

There is 1 hour available for show and tell. So in world 1 each child would have 3 minutes to speak. In world 2, each child would have 6 minutes to speak.

Which world do you think would be more fair? Which world do you think would be more just?

I would argue that World 1 would be more just than world 2. 3 minutes is plenty of time for each child to meaningfully participate. Having 10 children miss out so others can have 6 minutes is mere indulgence. And in this world, attempting to fairly distribute the time via race, ethnicity or gender is unnecessary. It is unnecessary because if it every child has an equal amount of time to speak, then it will also be equal in respect to race, ethnicity and gender (in proportion to their representation).

There is an analogy that can be drawn with the focus on disparity in politics. Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed Jr (Ben Norton, 2015) often makes the following criticism of those who focus on issues of disparity based on identity rather than class:

“As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”

The point Reed Jr is making with such remarks is that the option of not having a world where there is a 1% seems to be treated as either desirable or unavoidable. It is for this reason that Reed views disparity focussed politics as neoliberal in nature. After all, it was the mother of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher, who is popularly known for her decaration that “there is no alternative”.

Some may challenge the anology based on the claim that resources are finite. Hence, they may prefer a Rawlsian ‘difference principle’ where resources are distributed to the worst off in society. However, the claim of finite resources is often a myth. Consider food. We have enough to feed 10 billion people, yet have a world of 7 billion. So, a difference principle raises the question of why we have a worst off in the first place?

As mentioned earlier, an egalitarian society also sloves disparity issues. Take the gender wage gap. If we reduced the gini coefficient to 0 (meaning each individual has an equal amount of wealth), then by definition there would be no gender wage gap either. If men and women are roughly 50% of the population and everyone has an equal amount of wealth, then in this world women would share 50% of the wealth.

Therefore, ambitions for a truly fair and just society ought to direct its focus on making it more egalitarian. This does not mean that we ought to ignore disparity issues, but to remind ourselves that a superior alternative exists and that we should strive towards it.

Norton, B. (2015). Adolph Reed: Identity Politics is Neoliberalism. In bennorton.com.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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