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The Tradeoff Reconsidered

Because considerations of liberal legitimacy regulate what we may do in pursuit of distributive justice, if the gendered division of labor is objectionable at the bar of legitimacy, then we have a weightier reason to erode the gendered division of labor than we would appear to have were we to look only at the demands of distributive justice. We might think this means that we should opt against basic income, which risks reinforcing the gendered division of labor. If the values of liberalism generate basic interests of citizenship that set the parameters for legitimate political pursuit of principles of distributive justice, then our reasons of legitimacy to erode the gendered division of labor appear to trump our reasons of distributive justice to benefit the least advantaged by implementing some social support intervention like basic income.

I think that if the framework just set forth actually rendered this priority ranking, that verdict would be a decisive reason to reject the framework. But this preliminary assessment is too simple, because some distributive requirements are themselves entailed by the constraining values of liberalism. That is, some distributive demands of justice are issued, rather than merely countenanced, by the ideal of mutual respect and thus by our shared interests as citizens.

Consider again the basic liberties. Because of the strong idealized citizenship interest in protecting the basic liberties, political protections for those liberties are compliant with the criterion of reciprocity, and indeed a failure to enact those protections is positively proscribed by that criterion. Protections for basic liberties are overridingly important relative to any social goods not mandated by the criterion of reciprocity; thus, a state that fails to protect the basic liberties of its citizens omits illegitimately when it abstains from enacting those protections.

Protecting the basic liberties has distributive implications because the demands of adequate protection for basic liberties are not merely formal but substantive. To adequately protect citizens’ basic liberties, the state must ensure that each citizen has enough material resources effectively to execute the powers those liberties protect. Indeed, among the most paradigmatic of the positive requirements the criterion of reciprocity imposes are these: Society must protect certain rights, liberties, and opportunities; it must afford a special priority to these rights, liberties, and opportunities, especially with respect to claims of the general good; and it must ensure for all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of these rights, liberties, and opportunities (Rawls 1993, xlvi, 6). These conditions are demanded by the criterion of reciprocity because they are crucial to protecting a fundamental citizenship interest: the interest in exercising one’s conception of the good. That interest is jeopardized when the basic liberties are vulnerable, and it is jeopardized too when one lacks the material preconditions for exercising those liberties. Up until the point at which all citizens have enough to effectively exercise their basic liberties, then, egalitarian distributive injustice is a problem of legitimacy.

Egalitarian distributive injustice also constitutes a problem of legitimacy whenever some citizens have so little, or so few opportunities to attain positions of value, that their status as equal citizens is undermined. At the (in my view, not very extreme) extreme, distributive inequalities or insufficiencies can undermine citizens’ capacity to stand as social equals. When this status is compromised by material inequalities or inadequacies, the criterion of reciprocity demands that the situation be remedied. Up until the point at which every citizen is well-enough-off to stand as a social equal, distributive injustice is a problem of legitimacy.

Where does this leave us? Under some circumstances (including ours), the gendered division of labor is a problem of liberal legitimacy. Under some circumstances (including ours), distributive inequality is too. We would ideally have some metric for weighting the moral importance of divergent citizenship interests, and thus divergent legitimacy problems. I have no such metric to offer. But it seems clear that lacking adequate material means to exercise basic liberties or to stand as a social equal is the direr problem of legitimacy. When circumstances make tradeoffs necessary, we have reason to prioritize social policies we judge most effective at ameliorating the most egregious problem of legitimacy: in our case, poverty.

But we should not lose sight of what is at stake in this tradeoff. Insofar as the gendered division of labor also constitutes a problem of legitimacy, social policy to erode it should be weighted considerably more heavily than if it generated only a problem of unequal opportunity among the most advantaged citizens. The gendered division of labor frustrates the fundamental liberal values that regulate our use of political power in pursuit of distributive justice. It is a less urgent problem of legitimacy than poverty and, I submit, a less urgent problem of legitimacy than severe inequality even when those on the losing end are considerably better-off than they are now. In a society beset by both serious inequality and an illegitimate gendered division of labor, poverty amelioration should take priority. But because the gendered division of labor is also a problem of legitimacy, gender egalitarianism comes to take priority at least as soon as distributive inequality ceases to be a problem of legitimacy and becomes (only) a failure to live up to the aspirational value of distributive justice. This occurs only after the least advantaged are materially well-enough-off to stand in relations of social equality and effectively to exercise their basic liberties. I think that this is a quite high threshold of distributive equality. Even above it, distributive inequality doesn’t cease to be unjust. But it is a failure to realize an aspirational value, not a failure to abide by the fundamental values of liberalism that constrain political pursuit of any social aspiration. It is an injustice, but not a failure of mutual respect, and so gives way in moral weightiness to the legitimacy problem of the gendered division of labor.

Just as some principles of aspirational distributive justice may be nor- matively weightier than others, some requirements of legitimacy will be weightier than others. But as a category, requirements of legitimacy weigh more heavily than principles of aspirational justice. Their categorical weightiness comes from their being issued by the ideal of mutual civic respect among free and equal citizens. This is the same ideal that demands protections for the basic liberties as a strong priority of justice. Despite offering no metric for weighting among principles of legitimacy, this argument has important practical and theoretical upshots concerning the priority of gender egalitarian and distributive egalitarian social goals under different circumstances.

First, although this debate has played out largely in terms of distributive justice, the gendered division of labor is not an injustice that we should ameliorate only for the sake of equal opportunity among relatively privileged women and men at the high end of the occupational hierarchy. This is true first because it sustains injustice that harms the least advantaged women as well as the most advantaged, because it sustains the very social attitudes that account for the devaluation of caregiving work and the feminization of poverty. But the gendered division of labor matters even apart from its frustrating equal opportunity at the high end of the social hierarchy and sustaining feminized disadvantage at the bottom: It matters because it frustrates essential interests of citizenship that liberals must regard as morally very important indeed. If basic income does threaten to exacerbate the frustration of those interests, we have a strong reason to prefer other mechanisms for poverty amelioration that avoid the tradeoff in question.

Second, circumstances matter for the weighting of social aims. We might say in the abstract that problems of legitimacy are weightier than problems of distributive justice because the ideal of mutual respect constrains what aspirational values of distributive justice we may pursue. But some distributive injustices are problems of legitimacy. Which those are depends on how severe that inequality is (Does it undermine status equality among citizens?) and on how badly off those on the losing end are (Is the effective exercise of their basic liberties jeopardized?). Similarly, whether the gendered division of labor is a problem of legitimacy depends on whether it maintains social hierarchies and (on my view) whether it is sustained by institutionalized social assumptions that are inimical to autonomy. Circumstances also make a difference to which tradeoffs we face in the first place. Basic income imposes setbacks with respect to gender egalitarian aims only because social norms influence the relative likelihood of women and men opting out of paid work in favor of caregiving if their financial circumstances allow it. And circumstances matter to the tradeoffs we face for a simpler reason, too: Social resources and political will are scarce, and this means we face opportunity costs.

It matters that circumstances make a difference, because those circumstances are themselves politically malleable, and one worthy target of political energy might be to ease the tradeoffs themselves. Unconditional social supports may work to the detriment of gender egalitarianism by enabling women to withdraw from paid labor. Poverty amelioration is morally more urgent, and so we might rightly opt for basic income despite its liabilities. But they are serious liabilities, because the gendered division of labor is a problem of legitimacy. This may seem a mere quibble, given that gender egalitarianism is less weighty than poverty amelioration in any case. But we should want to get it right about how dire the tradeoff is, because the constraints we face and the tradeoffs they force are themselves a product of political decisions.

Finally, I hope the argument demonstrates that liberalism has underexplored resources for rendering plausible and nuanced verdicts concerning justice’s demands on behalf of caregivers. That caregivers are vulnerable and that caregiving is gendered constitute social problems that we can recognize as such by invoking principles of distributive justice, but what is objectionable about the gendered division of labor is not exhausted by the consequences it has for citizens’ shares of distributable resources. The gendered division of caregiving labor is a problem from the perspective of idealized citizenship and thus can be diagnosed as a social ill by drawing on the very theoretical resources that lie at the normative core of liberalism. Not only can liberalism adequately address injustices pertaining to the giving and receiving of care; at its very core, liberalism is committed to caring about caregiving.

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