Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Obsessed with Inequality

Oh, the injustice of it all.

Holman Jenkins says this morning that we have all become obsessed with inequality. Surely, he is right.

It is certainly true in New York, a city that has made extreme inequality a way of life. By following the blue state governance model, New York has managed to produce gross income disparities. Most of the city's money is concentrated in the hands of very, very few of its citizens.

It doesn’t seem quite fair because it isn’t fair. But, how unfair is it really? If society wants to produce a more equitable distribution of wealth, does that mean that anything less than equal would be unfair and unjust?

As the saying goes, life isn’t fair. And people are not equal.

Fairness is a good thing when we are referring to the way a game is played. But fair has nothing to do with equal. If the game is being played fairly someone will win and someone will lost. In a fair competition there is no equality. In truth, inequality is the human condition.

People are not born into the same circumstances, the same families, the same communities, or the same nations. Advantages and disadvantages inhere in all of the disparities of genetic and social fortune.

Equal opportunity should never be expected to produce equal results. Competition is not supposed to produce equal results. If no one ever does better than anyone else then we would have nothing to aspire to.

If we could legislate equal results we would demotivate the population and produce a massive wave of depression. Isn’t that the primary lesson from the great failure called Communism?

Since equality can never really exist, aspiring toward it can  make you a constant complainer, someone who will always find fault. It can also induce you to tilt at windmills. 

Aspiring to an unrealistic ideal is an excellent way to produce depression.

Worshiping equality is really a form of idolatry. It involves trying to force reality to conform to an ideal. It is not just a fool’s errand; it is downright dangerous.

A goodly part of the problem, Jenkins suggests, is that we confuse equality and sameness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that it was a self-evident truth that all men were created equal.

Jefferson was saying that all men and women should have equal rights. He could not have meant that all men and women are born into the same circumstances. If all circumstances are created equal then what difference would it have made whether the American colonies were subject to the British crown?

Nor could he have possibly meant that all people are the same. It makes sense to say that everyone should have equal rights, but it makes no sense to say that everyone is the same.

Examine the idea, which most people seem to hold to be a self-evident truth, namely, that there should be equal pay for equal work.

Equal pay must mean the same pay. But, when you say that people should receive equal pay for equal work, you are really saying that they should receive the same pay for equivalent work.

In truth, there is no such thing as equal work. It never happens that two different people do the same work.

But then, how do you decide whose work is equal or equivalent to whose? And, who do you think should make the decision?

Will it be a massive government bureaucracy or an army of trial lawyers?

At the very least, the notion of equal pay for equal work implies that the free labor market does not distribute rewards and income fairly, and that therefore, the market cannot be trusted.

The true source of the obsession with inequality does not lie with Thomas Jefferson. We owe it to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who famously write a tract called, The Discourse on Inequality.

Rousseau argued that civil society was not just unequal, but was unjust and unfair… a criminal conspiracy.

According to Rousseau, the root of all inequality, and thus, of all evil, lay in private property.

By his theory human beings had originally lived in a natural possession-free state. Then one day, in his version of original sin, someone declared that a piece of land was his and his alone to enjoy. If the property was his and if it was not naturally his, then he must have taken it from someone else.

In Rousseau’s world, property is theft. If you could eliminate private property, you could eliminate war and violence.

History suggests that Rousseau was wrong to the point of being deranged. Ultimately, his ideas proved to be dangerous. When Communists tried to eliminate private property they did not produce a Worker’s Paradise. They produced famine on a level that had never before been seen.

Today's American inequality-mongers are saying that income inequality must involve theft. Thus, it must be by a symptom of injustice.

Follow this argument to its logical conclusion and you will see that it can only be solved by confiscating the wealth of the richest citizens.

No one has really suggested that wealth confiscation will produce prosperity or economic growth. Rousseau’s idea is a machine for producing equal misery for everyone. It stifles economic competition, and therefore it reduces everyone’s standard of living.

The obsession with inequality has its advantages. If you worship at the altar of the god of equality you will always have something to complain about. 

Clearly, not all inequality is created equal. If the market were allowed to determine how to reward people for their contributions, you would find that never distributes things equally. Sometimes the inequality is less extreme; sometimes it is more extreme. Sometimes it seems perfectly fair; sometimes not.

The fact that baseball stars are routinely rewarded vastly more money than are policeman or soldiers, tells us that life is not always fair.

On the other hand, there is more to life than money. Taylor Swift made much more money last year than any politician or journalist. But, whose opinion do you hold in higher esteem? Who do you respect more? Who has a higher social status?

No one should count happiness in terms of a bank balance.

The market is not a perfect system for distributing goods and services. It is not a perfect system for allocating rewards. And yet, it is by far the best we have.

Ironically, when goods and services are allocated according to non-market principles, then inequality becomes extreme. 

In some cultures hereditary aristocrats hoard vast amounts of wealth and let everyone else starve.

In other cultures mandarins and apparatchiks possess or control large amounts of property while allowing everyone else to starve.

The first condition existed in pre-Revolutionary France. The second characterized Communist dictatorships.

When the French tried to rectify inequality in their nation they produced a Revolution followed by a Reign of Terror followed by the Napoleonic Wars.

When the Chinese tried, more recently, to overcome the horrors of Communism, they turned to free enterprise and succeeded in raising more people from the scourge of poverty in a shorter period of time than anyone anytime in human history.

I suspect that the true origin of extreme inequality lies in the effort to force society to conform to the phantom of equality.


JP said...

"On the other hand, there is more to life than money. Taylor Swift made much more money last year than any politician or journalist. But, whose opinion do you hold in higher esteem? Who do you respect more? Who has a higher social status?"

The answer to those questions is "Taylor Swift".

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Maybe I should have chosen a better example.

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