#nextdoorauthor 2: David Miller and Branko Milanovic

(for a list of blogs in this series, see here).

I have always liked to read outside my discipline. Insights from economists, political philosophers and political scientists add something to my sociological lens. In fact, the breadth of my interests is much wider than of my own work I fear. There is always something new to write about education and stratification. Side paths of civic education and income inequality have given me change of focus sometimes, but when colleagues start to joke that my next paper on educational tracking is waiting I may try to get a bit more inspiration from other fields.


As I wrote here, I am writing a blog on neighbouring authors on my book shelves. What I like about the thought experiment what they would talk about is that authors are matched more or less randomly. Two neighbours that caught my eye today are David Miller and Branko Milanovic. The reason why they appear in this blog is that their surnames start with Mil. Of course there is some non-randomness too, as I pick interesting matches myself (I did check now; I would have to find a way to connect Randall Collins with Dalton Conley if I did pick randomly – could be quite interesting actually. Who knows). But back to Miller and Milanovic.  

A political philosopher…

David Miller’s Principles of Social Justice has been quite influential on me. In the syllabi of my education and inequality courses I have often incorporated political philosophical readings. I must have taken this attention from my time at Nuffield College, where David Miller is a fellow. While I aspire to a value-free science in a Weberian tradition, the freedom of values should concern the judgement of research designs, and even there we must be aware of the values that undergird the variables we use. The sociological research problem of inequality cannot be separated from a concern of distributional fairness. Ultimately, because inequality is, at least in part, a consequence of processes that are seen as unfair from many different perspectives, it has been one of the core research problems of the social sciences. The role of sociologists in judging fairness is, however, limited in my view. We study and try to explain inequalities. We may evaluate them according to the principles of justice that are provided by political philosophers, but that is not our main concern.

What I like about Miller’s work, and Michael Walzer as well, is that they propose a domain-specific, or relationship-specific, conception of justice. Fair distributional principles in the labour market are not automatically fair in the family, or what is fair in the relationship between the state and its citizens is not automatically fair in the domain of paid work. Miller’s distinction in three criteria of justice, need, equality, and desert, with their typical types of relationships between family members, the state and citizens, and employers and employees, was very revealing to me. In the labour market, desert is a fair principle; a meritocratic ideal that a fair distribution creates the optimal connection between a person’s contribution to the organization and his/her rewards. But desert is not necessarily a fair criterion in the relationship between the state and citizens. It may lead to democratic inequalities when, in politics, the most contributing groups (in whichever way) are also the ones receiving the most political rewards (i.e. influence). In other words, if social groups have unequal levels of influence in politics, this contradicts the equality principle that should underlie the state-citizens relationship. The “diploma democracy” described by Bovens and Wille, and the unequal representation in policy making described by Gilens for the US and recently by Wouter Schakel for the Netherlands, are then unfair in the Millerian view. But also if one sees education as a responsibility of the state, and equality is the fairness principle here, the fairness of the level of educational inequality by social class or migration background may then not (only) be judged on meritocratic grounds, but also on egalitarian ones.

While the relationship-specific approach to social justice is helpful for social scientists who have to deal with the balance between equality and meritocracy, it is not uncontested in the social justice literature, if I am well informed. One of the founding fathers of the contemporary fairness literature, John Rawls, rejected a domain-specific conception of social justice, and determined overarching principles under his veil of ignorance.  

… and an economist

Branko Milanovic, a well-known inequality economist currently working at the CUNY Graduate Center, also connects to the meritocracy. In his most recent book Capitalism, Alone, liberal meritocratic capitalism (mostly seen in the West) is the alternative to political capitalism (of which China is the prime example). Milanovic, whom I also saw giving a talk at Nuffield College when he was visiting Tony Atkinson, believes that capitalism will govern the world, and societies have to make a choice between these two versions. “Capitalism has been much more successful than its competitors in creating the conditions that […] are necessary for the stability of any system, namely that individuals in their daily actions manifest and thus reinforce the broader values upon which the system is based” (p. 4-5). There is definitely a touch of Parsonian structural-functionalism in this quote, which is more often seen among economists by the way. Maybe Milanovic is less defensive of capitalism than realistic about it, but he is clearly aware of the delicate balance between the egalitarian implications of liberalism and the inegalitarian implications of the meritocracy. In that sense both Miller and Milanovic offer something interesting for scholars studying equality and meritocratic allocation. Milanovic may be less clear why the meritocracy is more compatible with inheritance of wealth than liberalism (and hence rejecting inheritance tax); if merits count, rewarding someone for the fruits of someone else’s (i.e. the parents’) merits or luck seems not so obvious to me.

What I like about Milanovic, a view also seen in Iversen and Soskice’s recent defense of democratic capitalism in their book Democracy and Prosperity, is that a critical stance to the contemporary high-inequality societies can be combined with a defense of capitalism. I am a bit allergic to ‘anti-capitalist’ sentiments by scholars who argue that capitalism and democracy (or capitalism and climate awareness more recently) are incompatible. Capitalism, described as “the system where most production is carried out with privately owned means of production, capital hires legally free labour, and coordination is decentralized” (p. 12), is in need of changes towards more equal reward of skills and more deconcentrated ownership of assets. Possible reforms in this direction are not new (nor does Milanovic claim they are), and could be implemented within a liberal meritocratic capitalist model. Political economists Iversen and Soskice more explicitly address that democracy is in fact strongly allied with capitalism. Globalization is for them less of a threat than for Milanovic, because companies in advanced economies rely heavily on the locally highly educated workforce, rule of law, and democracy.   

Miller and Milanovic of course come from very different angles, but I am sure they would have a lot to talk about as neighbours. And maybe they did, for example at the High Table at Nuffield College.

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