Ronald Dworkin argues, in two lengthy papers (“What is Equality? Parts 1 and 2”, P&PA 1981), that, if we care about equality at all, then we should care about equality of resources — as opposed to, in particular, equality of welfare. Central to his argument is a principle that he calls the Envy Test, which may be stated as follows.
Envy Test: A division of resources is equal if and only if, under that division, no person prefers another’s bundle of resource’s to her own.
Notice that this is intended as a purely descriptive principle. As Dworkin puts it, the Envy Test provides a “metric” of equality: it purports to determine whether equality, in fact, obtains in a particular division of resources. But it leaves open whether or not such equality is good, or fair, or just, or something that we ought to promote. However, as I shall argue, the Envy Test is inadequate for that descriptive purpose.
The Envy Test is, I believe, false. There are possible divisions of resources that fail the Envy Test yet are, nonetheless, equal. Imagine a simple two-person society, whose members are named Buzz and Woody. And suppose that, in this society, resources happen to be divided in such a way that Buzz and Woody are mutually envious of each other’s bundles; that is, Buzz prefers Woody’s bundle and Woody prefers Buzz’s. (It doesn’t matter for our purposes how the resources came to be divided in this way.) Clearly this division fails the Envy Test — indeed, it fails twice over. Dworkin must say, therefore, that there is inequality in the division of resources. But if that is so, it must be the case that one of the two individuals has a greater share of resources than the other; that’s just what “equality” means. So the question arises: who has the greater share?
But it’s rather hard to say. The situations of the two people are, in an important way, symmetrical: if there’s some reason to think that it’s Buzz who has the greater share (perhaps because Woody envies Buzz’s resources), then there’s a comparable reason to think that it’s Woody (because Buzz also envies Woody’s resources). Perhaps Dworkin might say that this could be settled by consulting the relative intensities of preference: whoever prefers the other’s bundle with the lesser intensity is the one with the greater share, so he might say. But that clearly won’t do; for we can simply stipulate that, in the example, the preferences are equally strong.
Thus, if we were to accept the Envy Test, then we would have to deny that the resource scales were level, even though we had no idea which way they were tilting. But that’s implausible. Given the symmetry of reasons, the most natural thing to say is that neither person has a greater share of resources. In any case, it’s hard to see how we we could deny even the possibility of such an equal division, as the Envy Test does. Of course, this is not to say that the division is a particularly good one. If Buzz and Woody do the sensible thing and swap their bundles, thereby eliminating all envy, then this would doubtless be an improvement. I don’t deny that the post-swap division would be better (or more just, or fair, etc.) than the pre-swap division; I deny only that it must be more equal.
So we should reject the Envy Test; it is not an adequate metric for equality of resources.