Creating Liberal Justice: The Sources of Inequality and Their Moral Weight



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Inequality is always relevant in political science, but often discussed without proper context. This dissertation provides an account of justified inequality in liberal societies from its philosophic origins to debates about public policy. In the first chapter, I identify a teleological conception of labor as the proper justification for inequality within the works of archetypal liberal John Locke. Locke’s account of labor as the proper mechanism of determining unequal rewards from society is built on a consequentialist argument and despite natural rights to property being based on labor, not all forms of labor are treated equally. I examine the role of the good life in Locke’s writings and how Locke favors rights claims which fit his conception at the expense of alternatives. Ultimately, illustrating that natural law is used to justify inequality as Locke’s conception of the tabula rasa of the mind is mimicked in his promotion of the ‘blank slate’ of the Earth. In the second chapter, I identify labor and individual efforts as the proper determinants of inequality within a liberal society. Then, I empirically test how foundational assessments of these individual efforts shape public opinion about the justice of inequality within twenty-three liberal democracies. My findings provide evidence that individuals who strongly believe that the inequality in their society is produced by differences in effort and ambition are significantly more likely to see inequality as just. Meanwhile, citizens who do not believe inequality is produced based on individual efforts see inequality as not justified. This illustrates an assessment of the liberal principle of justified inequality through meritocracy; citizens who do not assess their society as being meritocratic are less likely to tolerate inequality. In my final chapter, I test the assessments of meritocracy on redistributive policy preferences. Since redistributive policies are a mechanism for the government to step in and alter the existing distributions of wealth, I posit that citizens will be more supportive of these efforts when they do not believe meritocracy to be working in their society. My results provide strong evidence that assessments of meritocracy do have an impact on redistributive policy preferences.



Meritocracy, Liberalism, Inequality, Redistribution