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Pluralism, Justice, and Equality$

David Miller and Michael Walzer

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198280088

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198280084.001.0001

Complex Equality

(p.197) 9 Complex Equality
Pluralism, Justice, and Equality

David Miller (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

David Miller explores and develops Michael Walzer's notion of complex equality as a way of bringing together the potentially conflicting ideas of distributive justice and social equality. He examines the empirical plausibility of the notion of complex equality and argues that Walzer's theory of the spheres of justice allows the construction of an understanding of distributive justice and social equality that is different from, and superior to, mainstream political philosophy.

Keywords:   complex equality, distributive justice, justice, political philosophy, social equality, spheres of justice, Michael Walzer

My aim in this chapter is to develop and explore Michael Walzer's notion of complex equality as a way of bringing together the potentially conflicting ideas of distributive justice and social equality. In Walzer's Spheres of Justice1 we have the materials out of which may be constructed understandings of these notions that are quite different from (and, I believe, superior to) those to be found in the mainstream of political philosophy. I do not claim that my reading of Walzer is absolutely faithful to his intentions, for, as I indicate below, there is some ambiguity, especially in his conception of equality. I intend rather to develop more explicitly certain conceptual theses implicit in Walzer's work, and, in the second half of the chapter, to examine the empirical plausibility of some of these theses.

Simple and Complex Equality

The idea of complex equality can perhaps best be introduced by contrast with ideas of simple equality. I call an idea of equality ‘simple’ when it holds that equality requires the equal possession or enjoyment of some advantage X. A society is egalitarian, on this view, when all its members are equal in respect of X; that is, they equally enjoy the stuff or the condition represented by X. There are as many notions of simple equality as there are plausible contenders for the X in this formula: candidates include property, income, opportunity, rights, resources, capacities, and welfare. In (p.198) recent political philosophy there has been a fierce debate as to which of these objects of distribution best captures our intuitive sense of what it means to treat people equally, or to show them equal concern. The debate is about ‘equality of what?’2 But although the participants disagree about how the blank in the formula should be filled in, they agree that the formula itself is an adequate way of representing the ideal of equality.

I do not mean to suggest that simple egalitarians always advocate the unconditional application of the ideal of equality that they favour. Having defined the ideal, very often they go on to say that we may have to sacrifice equality to some extent in order to promote rival values such as individual choice or social utility. Indeed, as I shall later argue, there is a tendency to convert simple equality into a form that makes these trade‐offs less acute—for instance into some version of Rawls's principle that the advantages of the worst‐off group in society should be maximized. But this has the effect of obliterating the value of equality itself. If when we talk about equality we are really talking about the Rawlsian difference principle, then what intrinsic value is there in the equal distribution of our favoured X? Simple egalitarians begin by proclaiming a radical principle, such as equality of resources, and then go on to qualify it in such a way that it becomes difficult to see what is distinctively egalitarian about the final outcome. So if we are inclined to think that equality does indeed have a value of its own, not reducible to other values such as the relief of poverty, we should not begin by looking for some version of simple equality as a way of expressing that value.

Complex equality requires us to adopt a different starting‐point. We should abandon the search for some favoured characteristic X, the equal distribution of which would realise equality. Instead we should envisage social equality arising as a by‐product of many separate distributions, each of which is in itself inegalitarian, in the sense that individuals enjoy different quantities of X, Y, Z, and so forth.3 So here equality does not refer to the way some identifiable (p.199) good is distributed, but describes the overall character of a set of social relationships. How is it possible, though, for relationships of this kind to be regarded as egalitarian in nature? I shall argue, following Walzer, that a society whose distributive practices are radically pluralistic—recognizing many irreducibly different kinds of social goods, each having its own criterion of just distribution—may achieve an overarching equality of status among its members. This idea of a fundamental equality of status (whose meaning I shall attempt to elucidate shortly) yields the best interpretation of social equality.

Now it might seem that in making this claim I have merely added another candidate—namely status—to the list of contenders for X in the ‘equality of X’ formula; that what is being offered is really just another version of simple equality. However, such an appearance is misleading, as I shall now try to show. Simple equality is about assigning shares of some good to each of a number of persons. It is a distributive ideal applying to individuals. In some cases, such as equality of income, what it requires is that our institutions should be arranged so that an equal share of X is directly distributed to each person. In other cases, such as equality of welfare, we cannot directly distribute X; however, we can attempt to distribute some other good Y so that, taking account of each individual's propensity for converting Y into X, the correct distribution of Y produces an equal distribution of X. Thus, if we know how each person converts income into well‐being, we can in principle arrange to have income distributed in such a manner that everyone's level of welfare is equalized.

Equality of status, in the sense in which I shall understand it, is not in this way an ideal specifying distributions to individuals. Let us say provisionally that equality of status obtains when each member of society regards him‐ or herself as fundamentally the equal of all the others, and is regarded by the others as fundamentally their equal. It should be obvious that status in this sense is not a good that can be directly distributed equally. There is nothing one can hand out to individual people in the way that one can hand out titles to income or property. Nor does it seem likely that there will be some other good Y, the appropriate distribution of which will lead to equality of status. For it is not a question of how each particular individual converts Y into X, as it was in the case of income and welfare. Rather, in so far as a certain distribution (p.200) of Y may contribute to or detract from equality of status, it must do so by way of social understandings. That is, given the way that other kinds of goods are distributed in the society we are considering, and given the way that Y is understood in that society, the distribution of Y that is being proposed may be seen as helping to establish equality of status, or as having the opposite effect. The link between the distributed item and the egalitarian outcome here depends not on features of individuals, but on a shared social understanding of the relevance of one to the other. This is why, on the complex egalitarian view, equality must be conceived as a characteristic of social relations, not as a property of distributions to individuals.

Complex equality not only gives us a different understanding of the ideal of equality itself; it also differs from simple equality in the way that it conceives the relationship between equality and distributive justice. On the simple view, the relationship is a conceptual one: the principle of equality could equally well be described as the principle of egalitarian justice.4 Pinning down the appropriate X in the ‘equality of X’ formula is also determining what (egalitarian) justice requires in respect of the distribution of X. Now a simple egalitarian might go on to argue that justice is a more complex notion than this appears to suggest, and that (for example) departures from equality should be regarded as just when these reflect the voluntary choices of all the individuals concerned. He would then arrive at a formula such as this: justice in the distribution of X = equality in the distribution of X, unless inequalities in the distribution of X arise by voluntary choice. Here the conceptual link between justice and equality is retained, but given a slightly more subtle expression. Either way, equality as a social ideal is subsumed conceptually within justice. There is no particular problem in understanding why equality should be valued; it is simply (part of) justice.

Matters stand differently in the case of complex equality. Here equality and distributive justice are each conceived as free‐standing social ideals, and the link between them is an empirical one. Justice comprises the various criteria that govern the allocation of social (p.201) goods; it is a distributive notion. Equality is a predicate of the whole society within which many just distributions occur. The argument of the complex egalitarian, of course, is that by ensuring that justice is done within each particular sphere we may achieve overall equality, but this is not asserted as a matter of conceptual necessity. The claim is a broadly sociological one. We can conceive (as Walzer does) of a counter‐example in the form of a society in which goods are always allocated according to relevant criteria but in which certain individuals outstrip the rest along all dimensions, thereby creating an élite and destroying social equality (Spheres, 20). A defence of complex equality requires us to show that such counter‐examples will not occur in practice. I shall consider some of the issues this raises later in the paper.

So far I have endeavoured to explain the difference between simple and complex ideals of equality without giving any grounds for preferring the latter. Let me now give some reasons for rejecting simple equality. The first is the elusiveness of the X in the ‘equality of X’ formula. We are invited to consider in respect of what does it matter fundamentally that people should be treated equally. On close inspection it turns out that none of the candidates proposed meets this condition; each is open to serious objection.5 We may legitimately suspect that there is no single ground of equal treatment that is of paramount importance; instead, our concern for people is irreducibly multifaceted. We are concerned in one way that their opportunities should be equal, in another way that their resources should be equal, in yet another way that their welfare should be equal, and so forth. Where these concerns clash, there is no more basic currency in terms of which they can be reconciled.6

A defender of simple equality might argue here that the failure of the quest so far does not imply that we will never find a single basic currency which is adequate to express our commitment to equality. But now consider a second difficulty. Suppose for the sake of argument that we succeed in identifying an X which fits the ‘equality of X’ formula and which captures our basic concern for equality: it matters fundamentally to us that people should be equal in their shares of X. Suppose also, however, that starting (p.202) from an equal distribution of X, it is possible to engineer a strongly Pareto‐improving change, i.e. to move to a situation in which shares of X are unequal, but in which everyone has more of X than in the original condition of equality. If we are fundamentally concerned about people's shares of X, how can we fail to applaud a change which increases everyone's share of X while at the same time breaking the equality?7 In particular, should we not endorse the equivalent of Rawls's difference principle applied to X, namely the principle that we should maximize the minimum quantity of X enjoyed by anyone in our society regardless of the degree of inequality that that outcome requires?8

A simple egalitarian might try to fend off this objection by emphasizing the conceptual relationship that is assumed to exist between justice and equality. Pareto‐improving inequalities in the distribution of X might be justified, all things considered, but this does not show that they are necessarily just. But here we must test the strength of the postulated link between justice and equality. There is one obvious connection of this sort, namely the requirement of justice that all those who are equal in the relevant respects should be treated equally. But this is plainly a formal condition and implies nothing about what are to count as relevant similarities and differences. Why should we suppose that justice requires equality in any more substantive sense than this? If, instead of taking it for granted that the principles of justice we aim to discover must be principles of equality, we were simply to consider a number of distributive questions and ask what justice required in the case of each, we would find that the criterion of just distribution varied according to what it was we were being asked to distribute. In particular, desert is often a relevant criterion of just distribution—indeed (p.203) there are some goods, honours, and prizes, for instance, that can only exist on condition that this is the criterion—and desert is a differentiating rather than an equalizing notion. Attempts to mount a general defence of equal distribution by appeal to desert are bound to collapse.9

The virtue of Walzer's notion of complex equality is that, rather than reducing distributive justice to some simple principle of egalitarian form, he openly acknowledges the plurality of principles of justice and seeks to make this very pluralism the basis of equality. An egalitarian society must be one which recognizes a number of distinct goods—money, power, office, education, and so on—and which ensures that each of these is distributed according to its own proper criterion. The enemy of equality is dominance, which occurs when holders of one good are able to capitalize on their position in order to obtain other goods for which they do not fulfil the relevant criteria. In each particular sphere of distribution, some people will succeed in getting more goods than others, but so long as they cannot convert this sphere‐specific advantage into general advantage by means of illicit conversions, their overall relationship will still be one of equality.10

The precise sense in which this ideal can legitimately claim to be an ideal of equality is considered in the following section. What Walzer's view promises, however, is a free‐standing concept of equality that is empirically linked with, but not conceptually reducible to, the idea of distributive justice. Needless to say this gain comes at a price: if the empirical link fails, then we may be forced to sacrifice equality for the sake of justice, or vice versa. But if we think social equality has a value that is independent of justice, while still holding on to distributive justice as a value in its own right, the view I am sketching must seem an enticing one.

There are of course many who would deny that equality has any independent value. They would claim that such currency as the ideal of equality has in our society arises from a confusion between justice and equality. Once that confusion is sorted out, equality evaporates as an ideal.11 The following case may serve as a test of (p.204) intuitions about this claim. Suppose that in a school there is one boy who is outstanding in all directions. He gets top marks in the examinations, he wins the victor ludorum in the school sports, he plays the leading role in the annual play, etc. There is no question that he has fairly achieved these rewards; each child, let us suppose, was given an equal chance to develop and display his or her talents. Nor is there any question of the avenues of achievement being tailored to his capacities—these are the activities, let us suppose, that any school should sponsor and recognize performance in. So justice has been done when this boy gathers all the honours. One may still, none the less, feel some regret that this is how things have worked out. One may believe that it would be better for relationships within the school, and for the self‐estimation of both this boy and the other children, if honours were more widely distributed. Anyone who does believe this sees a value in social equality which is independent of justice (since ex hypothesi justice has been fully realized in the case as described). It is not necessary in order to have this belief to have some concrete proposal for achieving greater equality. In the case in question it may be that there is no way to enhance equality without trespassing on justice, and we may think that justice should take precedence.12 So I want to focus attention on the bare belief that a state of affairs in which one person wins in all of the spheres of distribution is less desirable than one in which goods are distributed in more varied fashion. Holding this belief is the litmus test for a commitment to social equality.

Equality of Status

Having set out the general grounds for favouring a complex notion of equality to a simple notion, I want now to say something about the sense in which complex equality is indeed a notion of equality. For it is by no means obvious why pluralism in the distribution of social goods should give rise to anything we could recognize as (p.205) social equality. This aspect of his position is left undeveloped by Walzer, whose attention is mainly focused on demonstrating the plurality of spheres of justice in contemporary societies. His failure to specify the precise character of the argument connecting pluralism to equality leaves him open to the charge that his egalitarianism is vanishingly weak.13

I have argued elsewhere that there are different ways of reading Walzer's claim that, where each social good is distributed according to its appropriate criterion, the outcome is a complex form of equality.14 One reading would make this claim into a claim about compensation: being relatively disadvantaged in one sphere (money and commodities, say) is compensated for by being relatively advantaged in another sphere (public office, say) so that, summing up advantages across all spheres, each citizen achieves roughly the same total. But although Walzer sometimes uses language which suggests this reading, it does not seem consistent with his underlying contention that the goods in question are fundamentally different in kind. For the latter implies incommensurability: if money and political power, say, represent two radically different currencies, no conversion between them will be possible. And equally it will not make sense to think of person A being compensated for his low standing in the sphere of money by his advantaged position in the sphere of public office.

A second reading of Walzer's claim would make it a claim about equality of power. Where the separation of spheres of justice is maintained, no one is able to use his privileged position in one sphere to obtain goods in other spheres to which he is not entitled by the criteria applying there. Thus complex equality stands opposed to tyranny—the dominance of one particular good and its holders. But although equality of power in this broad sense is undoubtedly part of what Walzer has in mind, it does not appear to me to exhaust his understanding of complex equality. A society which respected the separation of the spheres could in principle also be one in which there were a few very wealthy people, a few with great political power, and so forth, but in which the vast majority registered low scores on all these dimensions. This does not seem to match Walzer's underlying idea that complex equality (p.206) gives us a society in which men and women are fundamentally one another's equals.

As I have indicated, I believe we should read Walzer's claim as a claim about status. In a society which realizes complex equality, people enjoy a basic equality of status which overrides their unequal standing in particular spheres of justice such as money and power. Now we need to be clear here about what ‘status’ means when the claim is made. There is a sense of ‘status’ which brings it close to ‘prestige’—for instance, sociologists will talk about ‘occupational status’ when referring to the different levels of prestige enjoyed by different jobs. ‘Status’ here is a differentiating notion and refers to a person's position on some ladder of achievement. In this sense, clearly, people will not enjoy equality of status under complex equality, since they will typically rise to different levels in the various spheres of justice. In another sense, however, status can refer to a person's basic standing within a society, as manifested by the way in which he or she is regarded by the public institutions and by other individuals. Some societies draw a line between those of their inhabitants who enjoy full rights of citizenship and those who are excluded: here a person either has the status of citizen or the status of non‐citizen and there are no gradations within those categories. Thus we would naturally describe all citizens as enjoying an equal status qua citizens.

It is status in this latter sense which is intended in the claim that complex equality is best understood as equality of status. The argument for this claim can be put as follows. Where a society recognizes many separate spheres of distribution, individuals will characteristically rank very differently in the several spheres. Some will be successful at making money, others will achieve recognition as artists or scientists, others will gain prominence in political circles. Because the goods they enjoy are incommensurable with one another—there is no common currency in terms of which money, recognition, and power can be valued against one another—it is not possible from a social point of view to rank individuals against one another overall.15 One cannot say that Smith, a successful businessman, stands higher than Jones, a well‐regarded scientist, in general, although Smith of course will rank higher than Jones in (p.207) the sphere of money just as Jones will rank higher than Smith in the sphere of recognition. Where overall ranking is impossible, the status of individuals depends only on their common position as members of a particular society. Provided they are defined as equals by the public institutions of their society, this status must be an equal one.16

A society of complex equality is contrasted with a ranked society in which there is consensus about where people stand in a more or less sharply defined system of social classes. People think of themselves as belonging to one or other of these classes, and interact with other individuals on the basis of norms and expectations governing inter‐ and intra‐class relations. Typically there will be titles, special forms of address, conventional modes of displaying deference, and so forth. Social ranking is clearly a matter of degree, and one should regard complex equality as standing at the end of a spectrum, the other end of which is occupied by a caste system in which inequalities of rank are fixed, pervasive, and publicly affirmed.

The appeal of an egalitarian society, the reason why social equality is widely valued, is that it aspires to be a society in which people deal with one another simply as individuals, taking account only of personal capacities, needs, achievements, etc., without the blocking effect of status differences.17 This is by no means an incontestable ideal. There is nothing incomprehensible about aristocratic disdain for the easy familiarity between people implied by it. Nevertheless it seems to be an ideal that is widely endorsed in societies that are already individualistic, but have not yet achieved (p.208) a full measure of complex equality. The values at stake here can perhaps best be suggested by the responses invoked in a survey sample by the question ‘What sort of changes in social class in America would you like to see in the future, and why those?’ Among those who favoured moving towards a classless society, the following reactions were typical:

Social class as a way of treating others should be eradicated. People should be treated equally.

I think everyone should be judged as a person, not by his job or how much money he has. Judging that way is the main thing wrong now.

I hope the time will come when everyone will get along as one class without regard for race, creed, and colour, and all these extraneous things like income and material well‐being.18

Each of these reactions appears to pick up a different aspect of the ideal of an egalitarian society in which people's behaviour towards one another is not conditioned by differences of rank, in which specific inequalities—in income, say—do not crystallize into judgements of overall personal worth, and in which barriers of class do not stand in the way of mutual understanding and sympathy. This, I am suggesting, is the meaning that equality has for us when it is a freestanding value, not merely a corollary of a notion of distributive justice which in particular circumstances has egalitarian implications.19

Let me conclude this section by clarifying the formal status of the complex equality argument. The argument holds that distributive pluralism plus equal citizenship leads to equality of status. These conditions should not be seen as strictly necessary for equality of status to obtain. We might envisage a very simple society with few goods which achieved equality of status by practising simple equality with respect to those goods. As I understand the complex equality argument, it holds that simple equality of this kind is precluded by well‐known features of modern societies. But it tries to turn one such feature—the plurality of spheres of justice—to (p.209) positive advantage by connecting it to social equality. On the other hand, distributive pluralism plus equal citizenship are not strictly sufficient for equality of status: the linking mechanism may fail to operate, for reasons that will be explored in the next section. So the argument should be understood roughly as follows: if you care about social equality and are concerned to achieve it in modern social conditions, the best prospect is via distributive pluralism and equal citizenship together. Complete success is not guaranteed, but there is no other feasible route to follow.

Challenges to Complex Equality

Having identified the sense of equality that underlies complex equality and sketched the argument that links pluralism with equality, I now want to examine that argument more carefully and critically. Let us accept for the moment the basic Walzerian assumption that social goods are irreducibly plural and that each has its own proper criterion of distribution. Why might a society embodying these principles fail to achieve the condition we have identified as complex equality?

One possibility is simply that the same individuals might win out in all the spheres of distribution. This possibility is considered by Walzer and his reaction to it is that such an outcome is highly unlikely to occur (since the qualities needed to succeed in the various spheres are quite different), but that if it did this would ‘suggest in the strongest way that a society of equals was not a lively possibility’ (Spheres, 20). To take this further, we need to look more closely at what it means for one set of individuals to outstrip others across the spheres. Let us say that A outranks B when A scores more highly than B in every distributive sphere that engages our sense of justice (is wealthier than B, more highly educated, has greater political influence, etc.).20 If we apply this criterion to a multi‐member society, there are three relevant possibilities. (p.210)

  1. 1. No individual outranks any other individual.

  2. 2. Some individuals outrank other individuals, but it is not possible to partition society into two subsets such that all the members of one outrank all the members of the other.

  3. 3. Some individuals outrank others, and it is possible to partition society as in (2).

It might seem at first glance that, for a society to embody equality of status, (1) must obtain. But in fact this is far too stringent a criterion, as can be seen from the following thought experiment. Suppose we begin with a situation in which (1) does indeed obtain, and suppose that A comes to score more highly on some dimension on which she was previously inferior to B and thereby comes to outrank B (but there are no other changes). Does this upset equality of status? Surely not, for A still ranks equally with everyone bar B and B still ranks equally with everyone bar A. Reiterating this example, we can see that a society meeting condition (2) can still embody equality of status even in the face of a large number of individual outrankings. For status judgements are made not by considering how particular individuals rank against other particular individuals, but by considering individuals, or sets of individuals, against society as a whole. So A may on the whole be a successful individual in the sense that she outstrips many people across the board, but because her ranking vis‐à‐vis many other people is indeterminate, there is no reason to regard her as occupying a superior station.

On the other hand, if condition (3) is realized, then we do have the basis for a systematic inequality of status and complex equality is undermined. So much will depend on whether it is reasonable to expect individual outrankings to lead to (2) or to (3). In general they will lead to (2). In contemporary Western societies, we might expect to find many individual instances of outranking, but very few cases in which sets of individuals outranked the remainder. This is in contrast to hierarchical societies of the feudal or caste types, where the same small group of people typically possess superior shares of power, wealth, prestige, etc. To the extent that modern Western societies incorporate an underclass, in the familiar sense of a category of people suffering from poor educational levels, unemployment, low income, social marginality etc., we may find sufficient systematic outranking to defeat equality of status. One of the tasks of the complex egalitarian is then to show that a regime of (p.211) complex equality can prevent the emergence of such an underclass.21 This is no easy task, but my point is that there are specific features in this case which point towards a social division along the lines of condition (3). If we look at the rankings of people above the underclass, then what we find is captured by (2) rather than (3).

It might be argued here that condition (3) is too strong when considered as a necessary condition for inequality of status. I have said that A outranks B when A scores more highly than B across all relevant spheres; but suppose we weaken this to say that A is ahead of B in most (but not necessarily all) spheres. Saying this requires us to make some rough judgements about how spheres are to be counted when establishing a person's overall standing, but it may be that we can make such judgements even if we hold on to the idea that the goods distributed in the different spheres are strictly speaking incommensurable. We might then have a state of affairs in which those belonging to set H collectively outranked those belonging to L, in the sense that some individual members of H strictly outranked individual members of L, while rather more individuals in H loosely outranked (as explained above) individuals in L; whereas within both H and L outranking in either sense was uncommon. This may represent the present position of the upper class in Western societies: the members of this group score highly enough in most spheres for us to judge that they do indeed form a separate and superior class, notwithstanding dramatic downward dives in particular cases (princesses with no formal educational qualifications, the domestic unhappiness of many of the very rich, etc.).

The complex egalitarian does not need, or indeed want, to say that contemporary societies already fulfil the conditions for complex equality. On the other hand, if the conditions are made too stringent, the ideal becomes utopian. Insisting on (1)—the complete absence of individual outrankings—is utopian in this sense. Condition (2) is more feasible and appears to be fulfilled in the case (p.212) of roughly the middle 70 per cent of the advanced Western societies. So the task facing the complex egalitarian is to find the means whereby those who now constitute the underclass and the upper class can come to share in the basic equality of standing which this middle 70 per cent now enjoy.

The first challenge to complex equality arose from the possibility of individuals systematically outranking one another across the spheres. The second challenge that I want to consider holds that one sphere of distribution may become so pre‐eminent that people can be ranked socially simply on the basis of how they perform in that sphere. Because overwhelming importance is attached to people's performance in sphere W, the fact that their relative ranking in that sphere is not mirrored in spheres X, Y, Z, does not prevent confident social judgements of relative standing. In our social context, this is most likely to take the form of the pre‐eminence of money. What matters most in judging people's standing is their wealth or income. This may swamp other factors, it is alleged, to the extent that class distinctions may exist merely on account of large monetary differences.

Before assessing this challenge, let me make it clear that I am treating it as a claim about the pre‐eminence of money, not a claim about the dominance of money in Walzer's sense. To claim that money is a dominant good is to claim that possession of money allows people to achieve pre‐eminence in other spheres to which they are not entitled by their performance in those spheres (e.g. to buy political office or recognition). I shall return to the issue of dominance later. Here I am contemplating the possibility that, although money is not allowed to trespass beyond its proper sphere, a person's standing in that sphere none the less exercises a controlling influence on his or her social standing generally, undermining the argument for equality of status that I sketched above.

There is evidence that suggests that the pre‐eminence claim holds true in contemporary societies. People generally perceive their society as embodying class distinctions, and when asked what it is that determines an individual's class position, the main factor cited is level of income. In one study, an attempt was made to quantify the respective weights that Americans gave to income, job, and education level in arriving at judgements of social standing: the conclusion reached was ‘that variations in income status account for (p.213) almost two‐thirds of the variation in general social standing, and that schooling status and job status split the remainder about evenly. Income is of overwhelming importance in how Americans think about social standing’.22 Moreover ‘this is especially true of people's intuitive weighing and dividing when incomes are extreme. Very low incomes are almost invariably a source of very low ratings of general standing. Very high incomes are not quite so invariably translated into equally high general status, but at least they always seem to place their recipient far above the common man.’23

To consider the significance of this evidence, we should note that the weightings were arrived at by presenting survey subjects with descriptions of hypothetical people characterized in terms of income, job, and education (e.g. ‘What standing would you assign to a truck driver with five years of secondary education and an income of $7,500?’). Thus other factors bearing on standing that might weigh with people in concrete cases were automatically excluded. Under these circumstances, it is possible that people attach a great deal of weight to income not because they regard it as of overwhelming intrinsic importance in determining status, but because they regard it also as a proxy for other factors which also weigh heavily as determinants of status (but which the survey excludes). Why might this be? One possibility is that people themselves regard income as a dominant good, in the sense that they think of possessing a high income as the key to attaining other goods such as power or recognition. Alternatively, they might think of income as a sign that its holder possessed a range of abilities that would tend to ensure success in other spheres too. In either case, they would be acting on the rule of thumb: if you have to guess a person's social standing on the basis of limited information about them, the best indicator of performance across the spheres of distribution is the person's income. If that were the case, then confident income‐based judgements about standing in hypothetical cases might be replaced by much more uncertainty if people had to estimate the relative standing of actual persons, given full evidence about performance in different spheres of distribution.

(p.214) However, although for the reason just given we need to treat with some caution the discovery that people seem ready to make judgements of general social standing based primarily on income levels—a discovery which appears to threaten the claim of complex equality—I do not want to exclude the possibility that the scale of income inequality in contemporary societies constitutes an independent obstacle to complex equality. It may be that where income differences are very large they are sufficient by themselves to give rise to perceived class divisions, even when they are offset by other distributive spheres. In that case, the complex egalitarian will no longer be able to confine his attentions to the control of dominance: maintaining the separation of the spheres of justice may not be sufficient to achieve equality of status. In addition there may need to be some bounding of inequality in whatever sphere threatens to become pre‐eminent—the sphere of money in contemporary market societies, perhaps the sphere of political power in societies of other types.24

I want now to move on to the third, and final, challenge to the idea of complex equality that I shall consider here. This holds that there is a virtually irresistible tendency for people's rankings in the various spheres of distribution to converge, so the notion that equality of status can emerge from disparate rankings lacks an empirical basis. This is because the spheres of distribution are interlinked in such a way that high ranking in one sphere tends to translate into high ranking in each of the others. Walzer is of course well aware of this possibility—it is what motivates his whole argument for blocking exchanges between the spheres—but the challenge I want to consider maintains that the process of transference is unstoppable, for sociological reasons.

There are in fact two rather different versions of this challenge. The first can be crudely expressed as follows.25 The supposedly autonomous spheres of distribution all allocate advantages or desired resources. But these advantages, although no doubt valued (p.215) for their own sake, are also power bases, in the sense that they provide their holders with the means to move the world in the direction that they favour, including the acquisition of advantages of other kinds. Thus, to take some obvious cases, money can buy access to the holders of political power; reputation can be traded upon to influence the behaviour of others; education provides a means of entry into favoured occupations; and so on. The various currencies are inherently convertible, and so we should normally expect people who achieve a high ranking in one sphere to use at least a part of their relative advantage to boost their rankings in other spheres. Dominance, therefore—the capacity of the holders of one kind of good to use it to obtain goods of other kinds—is not an aberration which we can guard against, but a virtual inevitability. But even if individuals will almost unavoidably be tempted to convert the goods they possess across the spheres, it is also true that social systems vary considerably in the extent to which they permit or block such conversations. Consider, for instance, the following claim about Polish socialism in the mid‐1960s:

Under capitalism the convertibility of values is generally based upon the enormous significance of income and the universal role of money. Income can be translated into political influence, education or prestige. . . . Many key correlations between values are lessened in socialism. First and foremost, the role of income as a universal source of supply of other values is diminished. One cannot acquire political influence with money. Education and health services are increasingly less dependent upon financial resources. Prestige no longer depends to such an extent upon wealth, and the convertibility of power into prestige has declined.26

There seems no reason to doubt the general truth of this claim, which Wesolowski backs up with empirical data, particularly with respect to the disseverance of occupational prestige from income. To say this is not to hold up Polish socialism as a paradigm of complex equality. It seems likely that the distributional mechanisms employed in Poland were in other respects worse than those employed under capitalism. We also need to ask whether the way the goods in question were distributed corresponded to what the Polish people themselves thought was fair (there is evidence, for (p.216) instance, that Poles believed that educational achievement should be rewarded by better paid jobs, a link that was often broken at the time Wesolowski was writing).27 I use the example only to make the point that the extent of convertibility between spheres of distribution depends upon a society's institutional arrangements. There is nothing inevitable about the dominance of money, for example. In so far as the ideal of complex equality requires us to search for those arrangements that best contain dominance, we have no reason yet to think that such a search is futile. What we should concede, though, is that establishing institutions that block the illicit conversion of goods may have its costs in terms of other values. If we believe, for instance, that on grounds of liberty and/or efficiency the market should play a central role in economic life, then it is going to be difficult entirely to prevent the conversion of money into other goods. (We can establish the best system of state schools that the budget will bear; but we cannot prevent people from, say, buying extra tuition for their children, unless we are prepared to impose drastic restrictions on personal liberty.) So the quest for complex equality must be limited by our regard for these other values.

Challenge three, version one, claims that rankings in separate spheres of distribution will tend to correlate because goods are unavoidably convertible. We have seen there is no reason to accept this challenge in its strong form. Version two points to a quite different mechanism. It claims that people generally prefer to see correlated rankings; that is, if someone is rich, say, people expect him also to be powerful, prestigious, well‐educated etc., and are uneasy if they are confronted with contrary evidence. Faced with disparities, they may do one of two things: change the distributions themselves, or change the way they think about the situation (by, for instance, raising their estimate of the person's social standing). So (p.217) the claim here is that complex equality is unstable because it contravenes basic tenets of social psychology.

The best‐known piece of theory supporting this claim is probably George Homans's work on status congruence.28 Homans ties the idea of status congruence closely to that of justice, as can be seen from the following summary definition:

Fair exchange, or distributive justice in the relations among men, is realized when the profit, or reward less cost, of each man is directly proportional to his investments: such things as age, sex, seniority or acquired skill. As a practical matter, distributive justice is realized when each of the various features of his investments and his activities, put into rank‐order in comparison with those of other men, fall in the same place in all the different rank orders.29

Homans ties distributive justice to rank equivalence by adopting an open‐ended notion of ‘investments’, which are simply whatever personal traits the relevant group happens to value in such a way as to influence each member's general standing within it. As his examples show, a feature such as sex can count as an investment. He has been rightly criticized for ignoring questions about the relevance of different ‘investments’ in his account of distributive justice.30 Even if we confine ourselves to the standards of justice used by the group we are studying and refrain from external criticism, it seems likely that there will be a distinction between features regarded as relevant to the fairness of a particular distribution and other valued features that are not. Thus a work group may attach a higher status to being male than being female without thinking that, if a man and a woman hold positions of equal responsibility, the man should get higher pay.

But although Homans's attempt to tie justice and status congruence closely together fails for this reason, the latter idea may still point to a factor of relevance to our inquiry that is quite distinct from justice. People may prefer it if there is congruence between various rank orderings, even where there is no reason of justice why the person who is ahead in order X should also be ahead in order Y. The reason Homans gives is social certainty: (p.218) faced with a person with incongruent rankings, we are not sure how to behave towards them. For instance

if one woman holds more responsibility than another but gets the same pay, a third party seeing them both may be tempted by the equality in pay to treat them as social equals and not to accord to the first woman the higher respect that her responsibility would otherwise deserve. The incongruence throws her status in doubt in the eyes of her companions.31

What should we make of this argument? It effectively turns the case for complex equality on its head. The complex equality argument says: if you want to achieve overall equality of status, ensure that there is enough incongruence between rankings in different spheres that no overall ranking is possible. The status congruence argument says: we want to achieve a clear overall ranking, so we will try to eliminate incongruence between different spheres. The mechanism invoked is the same, but the second argument postulates in addition a desire for social certainty which is met by having an unequivocal status hierarchy.

Is the postulate valid? Let us note first of all the difference between the desire to maintain overall ranking where it already exists and the desire to introduce it where it does not. If we belong to a highly stratified society (such as a caste system) in which the way we interact with people is strongly affected by their place in the hierarchy, then we may be disoriented by someone who breaks the crystallized rank order by, for instance, taking on a type of work usually reserved to another caste and valued accordingly. But it does not follow that people in general prefer ranking to equality, or that they have difficulty coping with a state of affairs in which overall social equality prevails and in which one's behaviour towards others is governed by their position in particular spheres of distribution. Next, it is worth noting that Homans's evidence is drawn from small groups and organizations within which it is plausible to suppose a relatively clear status hierarchy exists, even though this is not the predominant character of the wider (American) society to which they belong. Thus one example is drawn from a street gang and concerns the position of a particular member who had low status within the gang as a whole, because of his failure to conform to gang norms, but who was particularly skilled at bowling. The research documents how the other (p.219) gang members disrupted his bowling to prevent him obtaining high rank in bowling competitions.32 A street gang seems to me a paradigm case of a small well‐structured group with a clear status hierarchy. Other evidence comes from work organizations and concerns the relative pay of groups of workers with different amounts of responsibility.33 This evidence can, I think, be explained simply by reference to norms of distributive justice, without bringing in the additional idea of status congruence, but in any case work organizations are well‐known for embodying a status hierarchy in line with the structure of authority and embodied in symbolic ways such as the quality of office furniture one is allowed at different levels of seniority. My point is that these cases cannot be generalized to demonstrate a preference for status congruence in society as a whole.34

There is also some evidence that people resist excessive degrees of status congruence. One of Homans's claims is that work teams are more efficient when their members achieve status congruence so that, for instance, they operate best when led by older, more highly qualified, better paid males. But even he has to concede that, in one of the cases he cites (a study of the effectiveness of bomber crews),

the relationship between congruence and effectiveness was curvilinear. . . . a bomber whose crew had very low congruence was apt to be a rather ineffective one. From then on an increase in congruence was associated with an increase in effectiveness until medium congruence was reached:. . . but after that any further increase in congruence meant a sharp falling‐off in effectiveness, until at the other end of the distribution a very congruent bomber was apt to be a very ineffective one.35

(p.220) An independent piece of research, designed to test the status congruence hypothesis, points in the same direction.36 This was an experimental study of three‐person groups in which three variables were manipulated: members' personal standing, the difficulty of the task they were allocated, and the degree of responsibility they were given for representing the group (in each case the rank assigned could be high, medium, or low). Using these variables, a series of groups was composed in which relationships between the rank orders ranged from complete congruence (where the most senior member was given the most difficult task and was also made group representative, and so on for the other two members) to complete incongruence (where, say, the senior member had the least difficult task and no position of responsibility, and so on). The groups were then set to work and after a period members were asked to say how congenial they found relationships within the group and how much incentive they felt to work well. The status congruence hypothesis would suggest that the most preferred arrangement would be one of maximum congruence, but this turned out not to be the case. Although subjects disliked extreme status incongruence, they preferred moderate congruence to complete congruence: specifically, they liked the most senior member to be group representative, but having ‘rewarded’ seniority with responsibility, they then preferred to balance this by giving the most difficult job to someone else.37 They were, it seems, Walzerians avant la lettre: they recognized different criteria for distributing different goods, and they preferred a state of complex equality to one of complete consistency of rank.

Other sociologists have pointed out that incongruence between rankings within a group or organization can be a source of strength, since it means that no member is exposed to the degradation involved in constantly occupying the lowest position. Simmel, who referred to this condition as one of ‘reciprocal super‐subordination’, gave the example of Cromwell's army:

The same soldier who, in military matters, blindly obeyed his superior, in the hour of prayer often made himself into his moral preacher. A corporal (p.221) could preside over the worship in which his captain participated in the same way as all privates. The army which unconditionally followed its leader once a political goal was accepted, beforehand made political decisions to which the leaders themselves had to bow. As long as it lasted, the Puritan army derived an extraordinary firmness from this reciprocity of superordination and subordination.38

I suggest, therefore, that we do not find a general desire to achieve overall status congruence, or rank consistency, in social life. Very often what appears as a desire for status congruence is better seen as an effort to achieve distributive justice: someone's high score on one dimension is taken to be a relevant reason for her to achieve a high outcome on another (via a principle of desert, for instance). Where status congruence is not simply justice under another name, it reflects the dynamics of a particular kind of social group and, as we have seen, it may be neither the outcome that the members prefer nor the outcome that is ‘functional’ from the point of view of the group's objectives.

I have spent most time on status congruence theory as a potential critique of complex equality because it seems to me to challenge the latter ideal most directly. The other objections we considered all concerned social processes that might undermine complex equality without anyone intending this outcome: for instance, individual self‐interest might bring about conversions between goods in different spheres even though people in principle favoured retaining the boundaries. (Thus I may believe in a public system of education but, if I can afford to, send my children to private schools, all the while thinking that the system which permits this to happen is unjust.) Status congruence theory might seem to suggest that complex equality is not merely difficult to maintain, but unnatural, in the sense that it conflicts with deep‐rooted psychological propensities. It is important, therefore, that no such conclusion can be drawn.

Complex Equality as a Political Ideal

Having defended the idea of complex equality against what I take to be the main empirical challenges it faces, I would like to end (p.222) with a few remarks about its relevance as a political ideal. It would be understandable for someone presented with the idea to react as follows. It may be an interesting fact about modern societies that they differentiate between spheres of distribution in such a way that, if all goods are distributed by their own appropriate criteria, a state of complex equality obtains; but complex equality is here at best a welcome bonus, a spin‐off from achieving justice across the spheres. It has no independent practical force. We cannot modify our institutions with the aim of bringing about a greater equality of status, other than by doing what we already have sufficient reason to do, namely ensuring that each social good is allocated by its own criterion of justice.

This reaction would be reinforced if we accepted Walzer's claim that the criterion of justice is provided by the social meaning of the good. ‘If we understand what it is, what it means to those for whom it is a good, we understand how, by whom, and for what reasons it ought to be distributed’ (Spheres, 9). For this seems to remove the possibility of arguing about how some particular good ought to be distributed. We can choose to have it or not to have it, but once that decision is made there is no further question to be settled. And this seems to remove the possibility of appealing to complex equality in cases of dispute. That is to say, we are not in the position of having to decide whether good X ought to be allocated by criterion A or criterion B, in which case we might argue that, from the point of view of preserving complex equality, B would be more helpful. If Walzer's claim is accepted there is no room for such a decision.

As indicated in the Introduction, I do not think we need to accept Walzer's claim in its strongest form in order to defend the spheres of justice argument. That argument requires that it should be possible to establish a separate criterion of distribution for each good, but it does not require that the criterion should be directly determined by the good's social meaning. The claim itself seems to hold in the case of goods like love and public honours, but not in the case of goods like money, power, or office. Although very bizarre proposals for distributing these latter goods might be knocked out by Walzer's test, over a smaller range our reaction to a proposal with which we disagree is likely to be ‘If you think that, you don't understand what justice is’, rather than ‘You don't understand what money (power, office) is’. But although for this (p.223) reason I am doubtful about Walzer's claim in general, I do not want to defend the relevance of complex equality by suggesting that the distributive criteria for particular goods may be in dispute. Let us simply take it that for one reason or another these criteria are fixed. What practical role can the idea of equality of status still play?

To begin with, it helps support the principle of equal citizenship. This principle is now so firmly established that it might not seem to need additional support, but it is worth recalling that for centuries the mainstream of the liberal tradition favored a two‐tier model of citizenship in which only those citizens who met certain requirements (independence, property‐ownership, etc.) were admitted to full or ‘active’ status. In this context it is relevant to point out that citizenship is important not only because of the instrumental effects of distributing political power in this way rather than that, but because by defining who is a (full) citizen, we also define who has equal standing in the society in question. The fight for women's suffrage provides a good example. Women wanted the vote partly because they thought they could use it to influence policy, but also because they wanted the public institutions of their society to define them as men's equals. Nor do these issues belong only in the past.39 Guest workers and welfare recipients in quite different ways both raise difficulties for the claim that equal citizenship is fully established in contemporary liberal societies.

What now of the specific spheres of distribution? It is worth noticing that, in general, the more spheres a society contains, the better from the point of view of complex equality. This is true first of all because multiplication of spheres lessens the likelihood of outranking (where A stands higher than B in all relevant arenas of distribution), and secondly because it lessens the likelihood of one good becoming pre‐eminent. The more social goods there are, the less likely it is that individuals can be ranked socially on the basis of their performance in one sphere alone. It would be absurd, however, to recommend increasing the number of spheres for this reason. Whether or not we accept Walzer's claim that the social meaning of a good fixes its criterion of distribution, it makes no sense to invent new goods on the grounds that this will then lead to greater pluralism in social distribution generally.

(p.224) What the complex egalitarian can do, however, is provide reasons for not collapsing existing spheres into one another. Suppose there is currently disagreement as to whether medical care should be regarded as a commodity like any other commodity, or whether it is a distinct good with its own criterion of distribution. The debate will primarily be about the nature of medical care itself, about whether it has special properties that decisively differentiate it from other goods and services. But suppose this debate is inconclusive, as it is liable to be. It is then relevant to point out that the first position would imply the loss of a distributive sphere, and a probable falling away from complex equality. If medical care is treated as a commodity and provided through market mechanisms, then by and large the quality of care people get will depend upon their incomes. Rather than money inequality being left behind at the hospital door, we would have a position where people's unequal standing in the sphere of commodities was publicly displayed in the treatment they received. Although no single change of this sort would of itself demolish equality of overall status, it would remove one of the supporting pillars.

The idea of complex equality not only counsels us to preserve distributive spheres that are under threat of assimilation; it may encourage us to amplify spheres that are in danger of being drowned out. I mean here that the institutions through which particular distributions occur may have a more or less prominent place in public consciousness, and this will be open to alteration. The clearest example is perhaps the system of public honours. Under complex equality there will be various forms of public recognition of achievements that stand alongside, and can serve to offset, achievements in spheres such as those of money and power. Honours are distributed to people who have performed acts of public service, to artists and scientists, and so forth. This distribution can be more or less extensive, it can be done in a low‐key or high‐key way, and so forth. The underlying distributive principle is not up for negotiation, but its institutional expression is (within limits). So in a society in which money threatens to become a preeminent good, complex equality can be fortified by boosting the sphere of recognition, especially by making sure that the avenues of recognition are open to those who do not stand high in the other spheres. (If honours are given for charitable activity, they should go to those who are active in community service, say, not to those (p.225) who are simply willing to write large cheques.) In a similar way, as Walzer himself has pointed out,40 the extent of the spheres of education and welfare reflects political choices. The distributive criteria for these goods are determined internally to each sphere, but the size and shape of the budget, which establishes how much of the good there is to distribute in the first place, is decided by the state. If expanding the provision of these goods helps to restore equal citizenship, the complex egalitarian will favour it.

Complex equality is not an ideal that translates in a simple, mechanical way into public policy. As I have presented it in this chapter, its modus operandi is through specific spheres of justice, and it would have no purchase in a society governed by a single monolithic principle of distribution. Given the degree of pluralism already present in modern liberal democracies, however, the complex egalitarian's claim, that social equality may be achieved through justice being done in a multiplicity of autonomous distributive spheres, is a plausible one. Moreover, as I have tried to show in this final section, the ideal is far from being practically toothless in such a context.


I am grateful to members of the Nuffield Political Theory Workshop for discussion of the issues raised in this chapter, and especially to Jos de Beus, Simon Caney, Adam Swift, Robert Van der Veen, Michael Walzer, and Andrew Williams for their written comments on earlier drafts.

(1) (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

(2) See A. Sen, ‘Equality of What?’ in Choice, Welfare and Measurement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982) and G. A. Cohen's mirroring of this title in ‘Equality of What? On Welfare, Goods, and Capabilities’, in M. Nussbaum and A. Sen (eds.), The Quality of Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

(3) I later qualify this assertion, however, when I claim that complex equality does in fact require one form of simple equality, namely equality of citizenship (see n. 16).

(4) This assimilation is particularly clear in G. A. Cohen, ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics, 99 (1988–9), 906–44, and in R. Dworkin, ‘What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 10 (1981), 283–345.

(5) I have argued this in the case of some of the main contenders in D. Miller, ‘Equality’, in G. Hunt (ed.), Philosophy and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

(6) See Cohen, ‘Currency’, esp. 921.

(7) This is the line of thought pursued to telling effect by J. Raz in The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), ch. 9, who argues that many so‐called principles of equality are better construed as principles of entitlement (i.e. principles asserting that everyone has a right to a certain level of X). I have examined the limits of this argument in ‘Equality after Raz’, forthcoming in S. Caney and A. Williams (eds.), Joseph Raz's Political Philosophy.

(8) An egalitarian might attempt to meet this challenge by asking why inequalities in the distribution of X are needed in order to raise the minimum to its highest point. An argument of this form is presented in G. A. Cohen, ‘Incentives, Inequality, and Community’, in S. M. McMurrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, xiii (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 1992). But Cohen does not assert that Pareto‐superior inequalities are impossible; his argument is that they are not compatible with the existence of a certain kind of community. So equality is saved here by invoking community as an independent value.

(9) I have explored this point more fully in ‘Arguments for Equality’, in P. A. French, T. E. Uehling, and H. K. Wettstein (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vii (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1982).

(10) See Walzer's formulation of this point as cited on pp. 2–3 of my Introduction.

(11) Vigorous arguments to this effect can be found: e.g. in A. Flew, The Politics of Procrustes (London: Temple Smith, 1981) and W. Letwin (ed.), Against Equality (London: Macmillan, 1983). I have argued elsewhere that egalitarianism is integral to social relations in modern market societies, so that wholesale rejection of the ideal of equality makes no sense: this still leaves it open, of course, which kind or kinds of equality we should pursue. See Miller, ‘Equality’.

(12) Of course, if this were universally the case, social equality would cease to function as a political ideal capable of guiding policy. I return to consider this point in the final section of the chapter.

(13) See e.g. R. Arneson in Ch. 10.

(14) Miller, ‘Equality’, s. iii.

(15) It is of course possible for anyone to impose his or her own ranking by assigning weights to the different goods. But this would be a matter of individual judgement, and would not translate into social inequality of status.

(16) As I have argued in ‘Equality’, this implies that equal rights of citizenship are a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of complex equality, since they define the equal formal status of all members of society. I take these rights for granted in the discussion that follows, and concentrate on what other conditions are necessary for complex equality to obtain.

(17) This demonstrates a convergence between my own characterization of social equality as involving equality of status, and Runciman's approach, which involves distinguishing between inequalities of praise and inequalities of respect, and then summarizing the ideal of social equality in the maxim: free inequality of praise, no inequality of respect: W. G. Runciman, ‘ “Social” Equality’, Sociology in its Place (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970). I believe, in fact, that these two characterizations are simply two sides of the same coin. However, I resist the suggestion that one can understand equality of status in terms of equality of respect, because the latter notion is fraught with ambiguities and can be developed in different ways (Runciman anchors it somewhat by defining it in contrast to praise). One might say that equality of status corresponds to one conception of equality of respect.

(18) Quoted in R. P. Coleman and L. Rainwater, Social Standing in America (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 299–300.

(19) After writing this chapter I found a rather similar interpretation of equality crisply presented in M. Kaus, The End of Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1992). Like me, Kaus argues for a link between distributive pluralism and social equality as understood here. Kaus goes on to argue, however, that reducing inequalities in income and wealth is essentially irrelevant to the pursuit of social equality, and here I part company with him, for reasons to be given later.

(20) In the case of at least two of Walzer's spheres (‘Security and welfare’ and ‘Hard work’) this notion of scoring more highly does not make sense if applied literally. In the case of hard work, one needs to run the argument in the other direction (as Walzer says, it is a negative good): A outscores B if he does less (degrading) hard work than B. I am not sure that the other sphere referred to, covering medical and other needs, can be fitted into the present part of the argument; it seems better to treat it as an adjunct of citizenship.

(21) Walzer has addressed this question in ‘Exclusion, Injustice, and the Democratic State’, Dissent, 40 (1993), 55–64. His argument is that members of the underclass are indeed excluded from equal citizenship, but that this reflects not merely a failure of complex equality, but of distributive justice. In various subtle, perhaps unrecognized, ways, the dispossessed group are given less than their fair share in spheres such as those of work, education, and welfare. So on Walzer's view the problem is not just one of systematic outranking, but of the distributive mechanisms that lie beneath the outranking. Kaus also addresses the underclass question in The End of Equality, and makes some robust proposals for solving it.

(22) Coleman and Rainwater, Social Standing, 220.

(23) Ibid. 218.

(24) Here, then, I am departing in principle from the position laid out in Spheres, although in practice the measures that Walzer describes to contain the dominance of money would very likely destroy its pre‐eminence too. The difference comes out when Walzer remarks ‘If we succeeded absolutely in barring the conversion of money into political power, then we might not limit its accumulation or alienation at all’ (p. 127)—although he then concedes that in practice conversion can only be prevented by setting limits through redistributive taxation.

(25) The case is argued with a great deal more subtlety by Adam Swift in Ch. 11.

(26) W. Wesolowski, Classes, Strata and Power (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 127.

(27) Wesolowski himself has explored Polish attitudes to distributive justice, based on a survey in 1979, in ‘Stratification and Meritocratic Justice’, in D. J. Treiman and R. V. Robinson (eds.), Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, i (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1981). Note, however, that attitudes appear to have shifted quite markedly since the late 1950s, broadly speaking from an egalitarian to a meritocratic conception of justice: see the evidence in J. Koralewicz‐Zebik, ‘The Perception of Inequality in Poland’, Sociology, 18 (1984), 225–38. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to consider how changing conceptions of justice were related to institutional change in Poland. What is abundantly clear is that by the early 1980s the distribution of goods in Poland fell foul of any reasonable conception of justice, whether egalitarian or meritocratic.

(28) G. C. Homans, Social Behaviour: Its Elementary Forms (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), esp. ch. 12.

(29) Ibid. 264.

(30) See W. G. Runciman, ‘Justice, Congruence and Professor Homans’, European Journal of Sociology, 8 (1967), 115–28.

(31) Homans, Social Behaviour, 250.

(32) Ibid. 234. The research was originally reported in W. F. Whyte, Street Corner Society (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1943).

(33) See Homans's discussion of the Eastern Utilities Co., Social Behaviour, 237–47.

(34) This conclusion seems to emerge from the substantial empirical research on the status congruence hypothesis, subsequent to Homans and its other pioneers. The main upshots are (a) that although status incongruence is generally a source of dissatisfaction, the effect is quite weak once incongruence is disentangled from other factors (such as the bare fact of having a low status on some dimension); (b) that the desire for status congruence is essentially a micro‐level phenomenon and loses its explanatory power at social level. See e.g. E. Zimmerman, ‘Almost All You Wanted to Know About Status Inconsistency But Never Dared to Measure’, in H. Strasser and R. W. Hodge (eds.), Status Inconsistency in Modern Societies (Duisburg: Verlag der Sozialwissenschaftlichen Kooperative, 1986).

(35) Homans, Social Behaviour, 263.

(36) A. C. Brandon, ‘Status Congruence and Expectations’, Sociometry, 28 (1965), 272–88.

(37) They also wanted the congruence to be relevantly based; so they disliked an arrangement in which the most difficult task and the leadership position were combined but then given to a junior member of the group, even though the degree of incongruence in a mathematical sense would here be the same as in the most preferred arrangement.

(38) K. H. Wolff (ed.), The Sociology of George Simmel (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1950), 288.

(39) Indeed the quest for equal citizenship between men and women is still far from over in most liberal democracies, as Susan Moller Okin argues in Ch.6.

(40) Walzer, ‘Exclusion, Injustice’, 63–4.