Every once in a while a term of art is plucked from the world of academic literature and spread around like manure by journalists and pundits until people who have no idea what it originally meant start using it in casual conversation. What percentage of conservatives griping about “intersectionality” have ever read Kimberle Crenshaw’s original analysis of the ways black women are multiply-burdened? What talking head whining about “cultural Marxism” on college campuses has even glanced at one of the texts of the Frankfurt School?
This is not to criticize people who don’t care about philosophy, which is a perfectly reasonable position; it’s to criticize people who pretend to care about philosophy in order to defend their pre-existing beliefs, but refuse to seriously engage with it.
“Horizontal equity” can’t help you if you don’t identify the relevant axis
Horizontal equity is the banal idea of justice which holds that similarly-situated people should be treated similarly. This principle is embodied in the United States Constitution in a variety of ways, through the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, and through the prohibition of bills of attainder in Article I. In general, Congress can pass only general laws, not laws respecting individual persons.
But this general principle of justice does nothing to answer the question of who belongs to the similarly-situated group:
- Is a non-college-attendee who never took out student loans “similarly-situated” to a college-attendee who did?
- Is a college-attendee who paid their tuition without the need for loans “similarly-situated” to one who took out loans?
- Is a college-attendee who has paid off their student loans “similarly-situated” to a college-attendee who has not paid off their student loans?
Different problems have different solutions
The problem student loan forgiveness sets out to solve is simple, easily defined, and well-documented: after making housing, health insurance, and student loan payments, borrowers do not have enough money left over to save for retirement, settle down, invest in their community, or have children.
People who do not have student loans because they never enrolled in higher education do not have those problems, but they surely have other problems: lower incomes, high housing costs, and expensive health insurance.
People who do not have student loans because they have already paid them off also have problems: they may have prioritized their student loan payments over savings, for instance, and face lower income in retirement or precarity in case of unemployment.
Trying to combine these groups into a single “similarly-situated” mass makes no sense: one group needs student loan forgiveness, the second needs affordable housing and health insurance, and the third needs adequate income security in retirement.
To say student loan forgiveness doesn’t help people who never took out student loans, or those who have already paid them off, misses the point: different problems have different solutions. Each of these problems has a solution, but solving one doesn’t need to come at the expense of solving the others.
If student loans are causing a problem, student loan forgiveness is the solution to that problem. If high housing prices are causing a problem, affordable housing is the solution to that problem. If unaffordable health insurance is a problem, affordable health insurance is the solution to that problem. If low savings are a problem, beefing up Social Security old age benefits and unemployment insurance is the solution to that problem.
Horizontal equity only demands that everyone with student loan debt, everyone who needs housing, everyone who needs health insurance, and everyone who needs income security be treated equally, not that everyone born in the same year receive an identical amount of government assistance and pay an identical amount in taxes every year.