Friday, November 11, 2011

Savage Inequality

Of course, everyone is in favor of equality. Therefore, everyone must be against inequality.

What does this mean? It shows that sometimes the chain of reasoning that propels a social movement is completely vapid.
If social justice did not work as a rallying cry, then perhaps, American liberals decided, inequality will be more alluring.
To me it’s a modern form of idolatry. Having failed to convince the nation to worship the goddess of justice, liberals have found a new idol: the goddess of equality.
Unfortunately, equality does not really exist. True enough, human beings are equal before the law. Citizens each have the same number of votes in an election. They have the same rights. It is also true that equality was a rallying cry for the French Revolution.
Yet, human beings do not possess equal talents, an equal capacity for hard work, equal character, equal height, weight, maturity, or intelligence.
The argument of equal pay for equal work does not work because no two human beings perform equal work.
True enough, communism tried to equalize the living conditions of every human being under its control. It succeeded in making anyone who survived its depravity miserable.
Communists did, however, exempt party officials from the equalization of misery… because they were responsible for maintaining it. It did not want them to be unhappy about their work.

Besides, a moment’ reflection will tell you that human beings, like most primates, live in social organizations that maintain status hierarchies.

If status hierarchies are intrinsic to human existence, then the talk about equality is empty cant.
Besides, hierarchies provide clear benefits to people. If no one were higher than you on the hierarchy you would have no one to emulate, nothing to aspire to, and no sense that you could improve your lot in life.
It would do what it did in communist countries… make you depressed.
Of course, there are hierarchies and there are hierarchies. The current Occupy protest movement is railing against the excessive disparity between the hyper-rich and the rest. It does so even though, rather obviously, most of the 99% in America is living well, indeed.
Examine the implications of an argument that people are embracing without giving it too much thought.
Instead of comparing individuals, let’s compare countries. Because that is where this argument is leading. Is it fair that America should have so much more wealth than Bangladesh or Laos or Chad?
If you worship at the altar of equality, the gross disparities between nations should offend you. Now, what do you plan to do about it?
Do you believe, as liberal economists have proposed, that wealthy countries should redistribute their wealth to the world’s poorer countries?
If so, why do you believe that American taxpayers are responsible for taking care of Laotians? Do you think that Laotians are so incompetent that they could never do it themselves? 
Perhaps you believe that if Americans have so much while Laotians have so little, it must mean that Americans lie, cheat, and steal. In more politically correct terms, Americans oppress and exploit.
After all, aren’t all people created equal?
We are being told that we should send money to poor countries because we owe them something. By throwing money at other peoples we can assuage the guilt that liberals are telling us to feel. 
Some believe that rich and poor are accidents of history. Others believe that they have earned what they have because they have decided to work hard for it.
Those who are mounting an insurgency in the name of equality will respond that they simply want there to be a more equitable distribution of goods and services. They are sorely offended by the fact that the 1% has so much while the 99% has so little.
Unfortunately, the Occupy mindset has no relationship with reality. It merely bespeaks a failure to understand how markets work.
Confiscating the wealth of America’s billionaires is neither feasible nor reasonable. Forcing billionaires to liquidate assets will cause the value of those assets to decline precipitously. And besides, there is not really enough to go around. Redistributing the wealth of the 1% to the 99% percent will pay the rent for a couple of months, that’s all.
After a certain point, wealth has no correlation with lifestyle. You can only spend so much money on goodies. The wealth that is unequally located at the top is working capital that is invested in business or loaned to the government. What would happen to the bond market if the hyper-rich stopped buying bonds?
Since the Occupy protesters do not understand reality, I assume that they are following a fiction. Fictions have their own logic. People with little experience in the real world or little interest in understanding it are often seduced by fictions.
So, let’s try to make sense of their nonsense by imagining that they see the world in terms of a fiction that was very dear to Freud’s heart.
Freud invented a mythic a community where one man possesses all the women. Call it a harem if you like, but this alpha male, this primal father, has, in this mythic kingdom, managed to arrogate all the women to himself.
Quite an achievement, you will say. And quite a party.
But also, quite a fiction.  Before long this first father will perforce by copulating with his own daughters, a formula that would ensure neither domestic harmony nor group survival.
Back to the fiction. Freud argued that one day the sexually frustrated sons banded together and rose up to smite the first father. If you want to be really Freudian, you will recall that this rogue band cannibalizes his remains, the better to absorb his potency.
Be that as it may, once the first father is dead the brothers can divide his wives among themselves according to the rules of the marital estate.
You might ask yourself why any of them would want to couple with women who might be his mother or sister, but that is outside of the scope of the fiction. And what of the possibility that some of them were not virgins? Would the brothers be more apt to couple with virgins or non-virgins?
Now, instead of one man having all the women, each man can have one wife. The reign of equality would be upon us, don’t you think?
Of course, what if the women are not equally attractive or desirable? What if the brothers do not agree about who gets whom?
Again, this would take us out of the realm of fiction into the real world. The myth would never tolerate it.
If wealth were like wives, the analogy would hold. Since wealth is not like wives, it does not. Try explaining to a woman that you want to treat her like a brokerage account or a treasury bond.
This morning David Brooks showed us yet another reason why those who worship at the altar of equality are not thinking clearly or well.
As a culture, Brooks points out, we like some forms of inequality and dislike others. Some are acceptable and some are not.
From that we can only conclude that our idolatry has turned many of us into self-righteous hypocrites. Brooks explains: “.. we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other.”
It’s fine f0r Americans to respect the academic status hierarchy, however unjust it seems to be. It is not so fine for Americans to respect pedigree or ancestry.
It is fine to look up to people with academic credentials and pedigrees, but it is not good to respect the verdict of a marketplace where everyone has a voice.
It’s fine to be more physically fit than the next guy or girl, but it’s not OK to assert that you have better or stronger character.
We have no problem wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the insignia of our favorite winning team, but we have big problems when someone asserts that he has a more refined sensibility because he attends the opera and the ballet.
This means that worshipping equality causes us to practice selective inequality. Like ideology, idolatry detaches us from the real world and makes us dysfunctional and depressed. 

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