Failing the Envy Test

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.

8 Replies to “Failing the Envy Test

  1. I think the example is more decisive even than you indicate.
    If, as you say, inequality means that either Buzz or Woody must have more, then there must be some way to redistribute by moving resources from Woody to Buzz or from Buzz to Woody (but not both) that will make the shares equal. (I am leaving aside possible continuity problems, which I assume can be removed by moving chances of discrete resources.) But plainly moving resources from Woody to Buzz will leave Woody envious, and moving resources from Buzz to Woody will leave Buzz envious. So the principle is false, and we don’t need to appeal to symmetry considerations to show it.
    But did Dworkin really endorse the principle?

  2. To be fair to Dworkin, I believe that when he proposes the use of the envy test he is talking within the bounds of a free market style auction. That being the case surely Buzz and Woody can simply swap their goods to avoid envy? I believe Dworkin also moves away from the envy test (Which may be found in Hobbes actually if you are curious) because it cannot be fulfilled in the real world, given that we cannot redistribute talents!

  3. Jamie, yes, I’m pretty sure that Dworkin did endorse the principle. You can read the article (it’s in Part 2, near the beginning) if you doubt me. I don’t have the article at hand right now …
    David, two comments:
    1. You suggest that “within the bounds of a freemarket style auction … Buzz and Woody can simply swap their goods to avoid envy.” Suppose they do swap goods, as you suggest. According to the Envy Test, the swap transforms an unequal division of goods into an equal division. If so, however, then someone must have gained, and someone lost. But that doesn’t seem right. Who’s the winner and who’s the loser? Swapping may make things better, but I don’t see why it must make things more equal.
    2. As to your suggestion that Dworkin moves away from the Envy Test, we must distinguish two claims:
    (a) The Envy Test provides the correct metric for equality of resources,
    (b) Justice requires equality of resources.
    On my interpretation of Dworkin, he continues to hold (a) throughout, but he might back away from (b), for the reasons you suggest (involving talents). The target of my post was only (a).

  4. Campbell I’ll basically address just your first point, since I think your second point is fairly much spot on (though I might quibble at the envy test providing equality of resources I might say something other than resources)
    I am not sure why you claim “According to the Envy Test, the swap transforms an unequal division of goods into an equal division. If so, however, then someone must have gained, and someone lost.” I agree with the first bit but not the second, this was a transaction where everyone won, both of them started out with stuff they didn’t really want, and then ended up with the stuff they wanted. Certainly if you take the envy test seriously as an indicator of inequality the puzzle disappears.
    The reason I think the apparent puzzle exists is because you are thinking that each bundle of resources has some discrete objective value. But Dworkin’s theory denies this, thats why the envy test is introduced in the first place.

  5. David, I guess I was assuming a “zero sum game,” so that the total quantity of resources held collectively by Woody and Buzz remains constant before and after the bundle swap. On that assumption, if the swap transforms an unequal division of resources into an even one (as the Envy Test implies), then surely the quantity of resources held by one individual must increase while that held by the other decreases. Of course, there’s a sense in which both individuals gain: they both enjoy higher levels of welfare, or preference satisfaction, as a result of the swap. But I don’t think that’s what is at issue here; Dworkin says quite explicitly that the Envy Test is intended to measure equality of resources, and not equality of welfare.
    Now, the zero sum assumption strikes me as quite plausible; it’s hard to see how merely redistributing resources could increase their overall quantity. But suppose that we drop that assumption, so that both individuals come to hold an increased quantity of resources as a result of the swap. The Envy Test implies that one of the individuals has received a greater increase than the other. (If each had received equivalent increases, then the resulting division could not be equal unless the prior division was; but the Envy Test implies that the prior division division was not equal.) So now the question arises: who has received the greater increase?
    It’s not entirely clear to me where we are in disagreement. I take it that you accept that the Envy Test implies that the pre-swap division of resources is unequal. Do you also accept that such inequality implies that one of the individuals must hold a greater quantity of resources that the other? On my understanding, “x and y are unequal” is equivalent to “either x is greater than y or y is greater than x”. Do you not share this understanding? Or, if you think that one of the individuals does hold more resources than the other, do you think there’s some obvious way of determining which of them it is?

  6. Campbell, I guess I was assuming that the envy test was required precisely because the distribution of resources is not straightforwardly a zero-sum game. Though I don’t think it isn’t a zero sum game due to welfare or preference satisfaction, equality of which you rightly point out Dworkin rejects. But I do think that equal distribution of resources requires an equal distribution of value (and this doesn’t have to be captured in welfare terms) and it is this which the envy test.
    Nonetheless now that you’re making me think about it I wonder if there isn’t a shifty move going on here, disavowing equality of welfare but then to some degree relativising the value of resources, which in someways captures welfare considerations…
    In terms of our disagreement I am inclined to share your reading of unequal (although a case could be made for saying it just means not the same) what this makes me suspect is that the envy test, whilst perhaps performing an important role in distributive justice doesn’t tell us anything about equality… So I think we are now in an uneasy agreement

  7. Having just discovered Peasoup, and being educated but not current in moral philosophy, I may occasionally comment intelligently based just on what I read here. I have easy access to the site, but not to the cites.
    The envy test strikes me as an odd way to assess equality of resources. Suppose Gandhi has a roof over his head (of a sort), clothes to wear (slightly in excess of a fig leaf), and all the food he wants (which is little). He does not envy Montgomery Burns’ resources. Burns, on the other hand, has many immense roofs, rooms full of clothes, and overflowing pantries. In addition, though, he also wants what Gandhi has. By the envy test, if I understand it, Burns is on the short end of the resource stick. We learn something about their respective psyches, but nothing useful about resource equality or distributive justice. Again, apologies if I’ve missed something about how to apply the envy test.

  8. Apology: First sentence of previous post was originally phrased “…may occasionally try to comment intelligently…” Realizing that no one would try to comment any other way, I edited to save words, but did so carelessly and multiplied words instead by feeling a need to post this correction. I’ve been described a self-effacing, so whatever arrogance I have is usually much better hidden.

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