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Justice and Legitimacy in Caregiver Support: Managing Tradeoffs Between Gender Egalitarian and Economic Egalitarian Social Aims

Liberal egalitarians, feminists, and liberal egalitarian feminists should all be committed to finding political solutions to the social challenge associated with justice in caregiving: the challenge of ensuring that dependents receive the care to which they are entitled, while also ensuring that the caregivers are not unfairly burdened in virtue of performing this valuable role. This chapter is about the tradeoffs we evidently face, between distinct aims of liberal egalitarian feminist justice, when it comes to devising social policy solutions for meeting this challenge.

I ask how we should weigh different normative commitments of liberal egalitarian feminism when those commitments diverge. Consider a policy that sheds light on the commitments in question and the tension that can arise between them. Unconditional basic income would materially benefit disadvantaged citizens, including unpaid caregivers. But it is likely to have a side effect: As we will see, it is likely to lessen women’s labor market attachment and men’s participation in caregiving work, thereby reinforcing the gendered division of labor. Several empirical projections are packed into this putative social policy tradeoff, and the tradeoff plausibly arises only because of injustice in the social arrangement. That is, only against a backdrop of already pervasive gender norms would basic income result in patterns of choice that further exacerbate gender inequality. But suppose for now that the tradeoff is genuine and that our circumstances force us to reckon with it: Basic income would benefit unfairly disadvantaged citizens but also reinforce the gendered division of labor. What should those of us committed to gender egalitarianism and to distributive egalitarianism make of this tradeoff?

We might decide which commitment to prioritize partly on strategic grounds - for example, on the basis of calculations about our prospects for making meaningful progress on this front or that. Mine is a question that abstracts away from those contingencies. I want to ask about the moral weight of distinct policy aims in the area of caregiver support, which will inform but not settle the matter of what we ought to do in any particular circumstances.

The tradeoff between gender egalitarianism and distributive egalitarianism can seem straightforward enough at the extremes. But we do not operate politically only at the extremes, and we should want values to guide us, with as much precision as they can supply, in navigating the difficult terrain in between. I want to suggest that the guidance we need is not to be found in the parts of liberal social justice theorizing where we’ve been looking for it.

I use “gender egalitarianism” to refer to a social ideal whereby any differences in social roles between women and men concerning work are not determined or reinforced by social norms or social institutions that promote gendered allocations of work. I use “gendered division of labor” to refer to the norms and institutional arrangements that influence individuals’ labor allocations under the status quo. Full realization of gender egalitarianism - full erosion of the gendered division of labor - is consistent with unequal shares of caregiving and labor market work between women and men within particular cooperative domestic arrangements or even in aggregate. What matters is that, in a fully gender egalitarian society, choices about how to share work and caregiving won’t be reinforced by social norms about gender or by institutional design that makes equal sharing difficult. Defined this way, gender egalitarianism and, conversely, the gendered division of labor are principally about the norms and institutional arrangements that sustain prescriptive gender roles, and not about inequality between women and men as measured by their shares of some distributable goods. The tradeoff I address arises between - on the one hand - the social aim of eroding the normative gendered division of labor and - on the other - the social aim of lessening unjust disadvantage in holdings of social goods, including unjust disadvantage in holdings that result from women’s disproportionate share of caregiving.

As we will see, liberal egalitarian feminists have particular reason as feminists to care about both social aims. Indeed, precisely for that reason, some may object to my defining “gender egalitarianism” to exclude concerns about the distribution of social goods. But nothing substantive hangs on this stipulated definition. Clearly, the gendered division of labor is a cause of women’s subequal shares of social goods,2 and the stipulation does not presume otherwise. It simply holds clearly open the possibility that some policy could improve the lot of disadvantaged citizens by enhancing their shares of social goods while also exacerbating the gendered division of labor. If anyone wants to insist that gender egalitarianism be understood to subsume the two social aims I am keeping distinct, they can simply translate this chapter into one about the tradeoffs that arise between two distinct aims of gender egalitarianism (and, too, between one of those aims and distributive egalitarianism more broadly).

Addressing the tradeoff in question requires discussing why gender egalitarianism and distributive egalitarianism are worthy social aims, but this chapter otherwise largely takes their worth for granted. I will also explain how the tradeoff in question arises and why forms of social support like basic income plausibly require us to address it. But skeptical readers are invited to take that, too, as a stipulation and consider whether my argument might fruitfully be applied to social aims that they regard as worthy, under circumstances that they take to call for tradeoffs.

Even setting aside its effects on gender egalitarianism, basic income may not be the best way to promote egalitarian distributive justice.3 This chapter does not wade into that debate. I focus on basic income because the conversation among liberal egalitarian feminists about the tradeoff I have in mind focuses on that form of social support. For my purposes, basic income serves to exemplify a range of social support policies that risk setting back progress toward gender egalitarianism because they effectively subsidize women’s withdrawal from paid labor. I’ll contrast basic income as an exemplar of such policies with “gender egalitarian” social support or social support explicitly crafted to promote the gender egalitarian social ideal - for example, paid caregiving leaves designed to encourage leave take-up among men and continued labor market attachment among women. My interest is not in a tradeoff posed by any particular policies but rather in tradeoffs posed by types of policy that prioritize different aims of liberal egalitarian feminist justice and plausibly impose costs with respect to other such aims.

I begin by explaining the policy types in question and the basic case for the costs each imposes with respect to the principal aim of the other. I then consider the tradeoff in question in terms of distributive justice: Basic income can improve conditions for the very worst off in society. This is clearly an urgent demand of distributive justice. Gender egalitarian caregiver support policy that increases women’s labor market attachment and men’s performance of caregiving work will equalize opportunities between women and men by lessening the extent to which women’s career prospects are affected by caregiving responsibilities. Plausibly, this is also a gain from the perspective of distributive justice. But some have argued that that gain will primarily benefit women at the high end of the income distribution, by enabling them to compete on more equal footing for scarce positions in privileged sectors of the labor market. Equalizing opportunities between privileged women and men might matter for distributive justice, but it plausibly matters less than improving the condition of the very worst-off. Thus, considerations of distributive justice evidently favor resolving the tradeoff in favor of basic income.

Although there is a great deal about this diagnosis that I endorse, I argue that its exclusive focus on distributive justice overlooks certain fundamental value commitments of liberalism. In other work, I have argued that the gendered division of labor is best diagnosed as a problem of liberal legitimacy, rather than a problem of egalitarian distributive justice (Schouten 2016, 2017, 2019). If that’s right, and if considerations of liberal legitimacy constrain what we may do in pursuit of distributive justice, then our reason to prefer the gender egalitarian policy alternative is weightier than the distributive justice assessment implies. It is not only for the sake of equalizing opportunities between privileged women and men that we should want to erode the gendered division of labor; it is because our failure to do so constitutes a problem of legitimacy.

Our legitimacy-based reasons to promote gender egalitarianism still give way to the moral urgency of ameliorating poverty, because poverty is itself a problem of legitimacy, and a direr one than the gendered division of labor. But my argument shows that the social aim of gender egalitarianism is weightier than it would appear to be were we to restrict our focus to considerations of distributive justice alone. This argument has practical upshots concerning the relative priority of gender egalitarianism and distributive egalitarianism as political ends under different circumstances; I hope that it will also demonstrate that liberalism has underexplored resources for addressing a particular thorn in what is often thought to be its Achilles’ heel: its verdicts concerning justice’s demands on behalf of caregivers.

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