The worse you feel about us, the better you should feel about the world

Epistemic status: attitudinal and naïve

Occasionally I meet someone with a really awful view of human nature. They look at the world, see all the ways we fail to cooperate, and conclude humanity has been doomed from the start. To them, there’s something like an inherent deficit of altruism or foresight that prevents us from solving our most pressing problems. Specifically, they tend to be disappointed with progress on climate change or nuclear weapons, and are pretty dour as a result.

I’m confused by the dour-ness. I’ll grant cooperation is difficult, but if you really hold humans in such low esteem, shouldn’t you be constantly amazed by everything around you?  How can the misanthrope react to the cooperative feat that is you purchasing a pencil with anything but astonishment? Thousands of people had to coordinate their actions to collect the timber, shape the pencil, insert the graphite, and ship it to your locale. This is impressive to almost everybody. To the misanthrope, it should look like a miracle.

And miracles like this happen every day. Food from every corner of the globe is readily available at my grocery store. I can get nearly any book shipped to my door within two days. Humanity’s knowledge is at my fingertips. All of this is due to the coordination of thousands of actors.

There are other, arguably more important miracles. In much (though not all) of the world, I can openly practice any religion and not feel threatened for it. In many of the same places, I can critique those in power without fear of retribution. Throughout much of human history, almost nobody had these privileges.

All of these miracles have some kind of cooperation at their core. Cooperative actors create goods and services and distribute them to those in need. The political freedoms we enjoy are based on tolerance, which is a special kind of cooperative attitude [1].

I stand with the misanthropes. I believe there are dark, myopic parts of humanity that will never go away. But, I believe the natural consequence of this view is amazement, not depression. Things — more or less — work, and such an uncharitable view of human nature by itself could not predict much of the current world. Our faults persist, but in some significant capacity, we’re still able to cooperate. That’s amazing.

[1] “I disagree with their views on X, but these people are still worth cooperating with.”

A Dialogue on Income Inequality

Andrew and Parker are driving on Mulholland. To the south, they peer into the LA basin and glimpse downtown. To the north, the entire San Fernando Valley lies beneath them before it yields to the base of the Santa Susana mountains. Multimillion dollar houses flank them on both sides of the street. Most are gaudy, but a few have good taste. All cost more than the average American will earn over several lifetimes. 

Andrew: Nobody needs that much house! Why should a human on earth have 10,000 square feet, a movie room, wine cellar, infinity pool, vineyard, and 8-car garage?

Parker: The views are nice, though. I wouldn’t mind paying a lot to make sure I see sweeping vistas every day.

Andrew: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind the view either. Still, if you can afford a house like that, it’s a sign you’re making too much money.

Parker: What do you mean?

Andrew: Why is it alright for these people to have so much when others have so little? They live in the lap of luxury while others don’t even have a home. You’ve seen Skid Row; nobody should have to survive in those conditions. People sleeping on the streets and not having enough to eat is unacceptable. Take away 90% of a millionaire’s income and they can still live comfortably. Economic inequality is at an all-time high, and there’s something deeply wrong with that.

Parker: Yeah, I definitely agree. Skid Row should not exist, but I’m confused — what does inequality have to do with this?

Andrew: What’s there to be confused about? Some live in poverty while others spend millions on ugly houses they barely live in. That’s unjust. If we close the gap between the best and worst-off in our society, healthcare, education, housing, as well as other essential goods, will all be more accessible. People will live better lives.

Parker: I still don’t see the connection to inequality. You are —rightfully— upset some can’t afford basic services or have an acceptable standard of living, but what do other people being wealthy have to do with it? The problem, as far as I can tell, is some people don’t have enough resources to live fulfilling lives. I don’t see a clear connection between their deficit and others’ surplus.

There’s a difference between one person having enough of a resource and two people having the same amount. The concepts don’t necessarily follow from each other. Imagine it’s dinnertime and we each only have a bottle of ketchup to eat. This will not do. Ketchup is not nutritious, and eating it alone is pretty gross. We are equal, in the sense both of us have the same resources at our disposal, but it does not follow either of us has enough food. Likewise, it’s possible for both of us to have enough food and be unequal. Suppose we both got groceries and you are having a lobster feast at your house while I settle for a turkey sandwich at mine. There’s a dramatic inequality between us, but this doesn’t imply my turkey sandwich isn’t enough to sate me. I might want to be invited over, but I am still able to live and function on my sandwich. It’s enough.

My point is poverty and inequality are conceptually unrelated. If you care about one you don’t need to care about the other. That’s why I’m having trouble with your position. You talk about reducing poverty but then go on about inequality, which is different.

Andrew: Maybe the concepts of poverty and inequality are distinct, but reducing inequality is still important. Inequality is about making sure the world is fair and everyone gets a chance to lead a fulfilling life. Imagine a single mother who works two jobs supporting her kids and barely makes ends meet. She can’t afford a good education for her children, and she’s sacrificing her long-term health to keep them above the poverty line. Now remember how some of the wealthy earn their money. They just invest, sit back, and live off their returns without having to lift a finger. It’s deeply unfair the single mother has to toil and endanger herself while the millionaires can just park their assets somewhere and live lavishly. When one party works extremely hard and gets little, while the other does almost no work and gets a lot, it’s unfair. We need to remedy that.

Parker: I agree something is wrong there, but it doesn’t have to do with both the millionaire and the single mom. At base, we’re angry the single mom’s efforts go unrewarded. We believe everyone deserves a reasonable standard of living and opportunity for their children, so the fact she works so hard in unsuccessful pursuit of these offends us. Notice the issue fundamentally involves the relationship between her efforts and quality of life.

But the problem ends here. Knowing millionaires are lounging around getting ROI is irrelevant. Even if no millionaires existed, we should be just as angry about the single mom’s situation.

Andrew: But what you’re describing is still unfair. Suppose millionaires exist and the single mom gets a reasonable standard of living, like you say, for herself and her children. The millionaires might still be working half as hard and making twice as much! Think about Jeff Bezos. He might be working incredibly hard, but that cannot possibly justify $130 billion. Some earn a disproportionate amount for their effort, and this should hurt every egalitarian bone in your body.

Parker: Why? Isn’t it alright to be paid differently based on different contributions? LeBron James probably works harder than his fellow Lakers, but let’s imagine he decided to train the exact same number of hours as his teammates from tomorrow on. He shoots the same number of free-throws as them, runs the same distance as them, and lifts the exact same number of weights as they do. Most likely, he’s still going to be a better basketball player, so why shouldn’t he be paid more? He’s still the player putting points on the board, getting rebounds, etc. If anything, it would be unfair if he performed so much better than his colleagues but got paid the same.

Andrew: Your example doesn’t work. The reason why LeBron is a better basketball player is because he practiced much more in the past. Even before he starts training just as much as his teammates, he has still spent more hours on the court than just about anyone else. This is what makes him a better basketball player. If he is paid more like you describe, his income is still commensurate with his efforts.

Parker: But what if Milton Friedman (5’1, ~120 lbs.) and LeBron put in the same effort? Hour-for-hour, Milton spends his life on the court practicing with the same intensity as him. Should they be paid the same? Probably not. It’s safe to assume no matter how much Milton practices he will never be as good as LeBron. He’ll be decent, but don’t expect league MVP or even a triple-double anytime soon. If Milton can’t play at an NBA level, why give him an NBA salary?

LeBron is paid so much because he makes a large contribution. His work ethic, as well as his individual gifts and talents, give him the ability to do so. Milton shouldn’t feel aggrieved he is paid so much less as a basketball player, and we shouldn’t worry about it, either. His contributions are tiny.

Andrew: But you’re still missing something. Being a poor basketball player won’t upset Milton because he can fall back on economics and make his living that way, but not everyone has that option. If basketball is the only way people earn income, and Milton can’t earn enough to escape poverty, then there’s an injustice.

Parker: I agree. Everyone, no matter what kinds of contributions they can make, should be able to have a reasonable standard of living for their efforts. If we were an economy of basketball players and the Milton Freidmans of the world would starve because nobody wants them on their team, we should remedy that. Perhaps a livable basketball minimum wage is in order, or maybe we can change the rules and take Milton off the roster to have him work in the front office where his abilities and inclinations are better suited.

Notice we can solve the problem without talking about LeBron and how much he makes relative to other players. Inequality of income is not the root issue here.

Andrew: You’re not much of an egalitarian, are you.  

Parker: I think I’m an egalitarian in a specific way. Obviously, we need equal political liberties. I’m very enthusiastic about equal voting rights, an equal ability to express ourselves, and fair and equal treatment before the law more generally. I’m pretty sure nothing will shake my confidence in these concepts.

My views on the distribution of wealth and income stem from two principles that also take equality seriously. As mentioned, I believe everyone is entitled to a minimum standard of living in exchange for their efforts, regardless of the size of their contribution. Conscientious people, striving to care for themselves and their loved ones, should not live in poverty. Whether their inclinations or abilities match what the market demands is irrelevant. I should be clear this minimum standard of living is not glamorous, nor would most be comfortable staying there for the long-term. Yet, it is a dramatic improvement from poverty and would protect our ability to pursue meaningful lives. In a slogan, I’m for an equality of minimum condition.

The second principle is concerned with compensation. When individuals make contributions, they should be rewarded accordingly. If you invent a vaccine, write a novel, or create an organization, your accomplishment should be recognized in proportion to the good it brings. In the same way paying LeBron the same as his teammates when he’s league MVP is unfair, there’s something wrong with paying a great author the same as a mediocre one. Human achievement should be celebrated, and there is nothing wrong if that involves giving some dramatically more than others.

This idea appears more anti-egalitarian than not, but it embodies equality with respect to accomplishment. Part of rewarding achievement fairly is giving approximately the same level of recognition to contributions of the same import. I acknowledge we need to control for context to see how noteworthy an achievement is, but, in general, we should strive to reward contributions solely based on merit.

As a result, I think income inequality is conceptually unimportant. I’m concerned with an equality of minimum condition and rewarding those who push the needle on human progress and achievement. The bare knowledge two people earn vastly different sums of money does not bother me, and it shouldn’t upset you, either.

Andrew: I see a conflict here. You care about political liberties, but aren’t those inextricably tied to the resources at our disposal? The person with the funds to purchase billboards on Sunset has more political power than you or me. Freedom of speech is much more valuable to them, creating positions of advantage and disadvantage in the political landscape. This seems incompatible with support for equal political liberties.  

Parker: You’re right. I need to clarify my position. There’s a distinction between political liberties and the worth of those liberties to an individual. Liberties grant the ability to undertake certain actions. For instance, having liberty of movement allows us to travel unrestricted between different locales. Freedom of speech allows us to say what we believe (without inciting imminent lawless action, among other restrictions). Having these liberties means we are given the mostly unrestricted option to undertake the actions in question.

However, two individuals having identical liberties may not exercise them in the same way. Suppose we both have freedom of speech, but you’re a celebrity and I’m a recluse. Both of us generally have the ability to say what we believe, but this capacity is much more valuable to you. You have a legion of fans who will listen and react to your opinions, while I don’t have any audience. In fact, taking away my freedom of speech probably wouldn’t have any practical implications, as recluses don’t communicate with anyone in the first place.

This situation seems unobjectionable. If freedom of speech were of equal value to everybody, we would give equivalent coverage and consideration to eccentric hermits as well as established public figures. We care deeply about individuals’ abilities to exercise their liberties, but how much, or if, they benefit from such exercise is beyond our concern.

Andrew: This doesn’t protect against another form of political inequality, though. Even if we all have equal liberties, some might use their wealth and advantage to secure disproportionate political influence. Billionaires can donate to congressional campaigns, hire lobbyists, and purchase political ads to shape the ideological make-up of a government. Instead of having one vote, like the rest of us, the wealthy can in effect unilaterally determine the result of an election. This violates the basic political egalitarianism at the heart of democracy. As soon as some voices count more than others, we become an oligarchy masquerading as something else. It’s difficult to imagine how extreme wealth inequality and a functioning democracy can peacefully coexist.

Parker: This has bothered me, too. Initially, it seems unlikely we can allow radical inequality on one dimension and be committed egalitarians on another when the two seem closely related. Yet, I don’t think this is a knock-down argument against my position. First, notice the problem has to do with a relation between the two dimensions; economic inequality has a negative influence on political egalitarianism. We agree this relation is harmful, but there are at least two ways to address the issue. Acknowledging the relation as fixed and eliminating economic inequality is one method. If there is no inequality, the reasoning goes, then it can’t exercise a negative influence on politics. The other option is combatting the relation. Ensuring economic inequality and political power are independent of each other can also work. If money had no influence on politics, then political equality would be secure. Wealth could vary dramatically between individuals with no adverse consequences.

The objection you raise is valid and important, but we can resolve it without affirming egalitarianism on every dimension. If we were to argue from here, the conversation would then be about which of the two methods described is better. Your point is good, but it only kicks the can down the road.

Andrew: I have another concern about your reasoning. You mentioned if money had no influence on politics, then inequality could run rampant with no cause for concern, yes?

Parker: I would say “fluctuate wildly” rather than “run rampant,” but yes, that’s my view.

Andrew: When you say that, you’re ignoring the psychological effects of inequality. If everyone else is much wealthier than you, you’re bound to feel inferior. This can happen despite achieving a “reasonable standard of living.” You might be ostracized based on the clothes you can afford, the house you live in, or the car you drive if you’re the poorest in a community. The result is real emotional pain that can inhibit normal interaction among peers and your pursuit of a meaningful life.

Parker: But resolving income inequality is not the best solution. Here’s an unconventional example that illustrates my point.

Physically unattractive people are also mistreated. Research has shown unattractive people are presumed guilty more often in court, are less likely to receive help from strangers, friends, and family, and are punished more severely in school than their attractive counterparts. Indeed, men in the bottom third of attractiveness earn 22% less in lifetime earnings than those of average physical attractiveness. This is likely due to discriminatory practices (Minerva).

Presumably, being physically unattractive can also cause psychological distress, but our solution is not the make everyone equally beautiful. If I understand the zeitgeist correctly, we aspire to celebrate these differences and treat one another equally, regardless of physical characteristics. Attraction is unrelated to moral worth or human value, so it should be irrelevant to how we treat one another.

Income inequality is similar. Like the unattractive, low-income people are mistreated because of prejudice. We can either erase the differences to ensure everybody is treated with respect or realize income has no relation to an individual’s moral worth. The latter seems more consistent with the tolerant, accepting people we imagine ourselves to be.

Andrew: But there are two types of psychological harm income inequality can bring. You’ve addressed the damage that comes externally from poor treatment, but what about the internal effects on self-esteem? Even if they’re not mistreated, the least-wealthy in a community can begin to rationalize their relative economic position. Simply seeing others who are better-off can foster feelings of inferiority and lead individuals to conclude they have lesser moral worth.

Parker: But they’re wrong. All humans have equal moral worth, regardless of whether they feel it is true. It could be the case the market values their individual skills differently leading to different levels of income, but wealth does not track moral status. Humans might be treated differently —in a fair and reasonable manner— based on relevant characteristics, but it does not follow they are above or below others in the moral hierarchy. The blind are prohibited from driving, but they are not morally inferior to the rest of us. Celebrities might get preferential treatment at public venues, but their lives are no more valuable than ours.

I acknowledge there are areas where moral equality necessitates equal treatment. Politics is one of them. Our equal rights reflect our equivalent moral worth, regardless of other contingent properties. Wealth, power, sex, gender, or race (ideally) do not give someone more freedom of speech than others, or less of a right to vote than her peers.

The other is living standards. There’s debate about the exact qualities that yield moral status, but our ability to formulate a life plan and follow it is most likely relevant. To respect this, we must ensure each human has reasonable opportunities to pursue her plan. Providing a minimum standard of living in exchange for conscientious behavior does so.  

Large swaths of the economic sphere do not fall under either of these categories. It’s possible to affirm our equal moral worth while still having an unequal distribution of resources.

Andrew: Do you understand how callous this sounds? You’re discounting peoples’ legitimate feelings. You will never be able to comprehend what they’re going through, or how the state of the world makes affects them, yet you dismiss it all without reservation.

Parker: I would be more sympathetic if moral value was the sort of thing where feeling it to be a certain way makes it that way. Moral worth is “real” in the same way trees and rocks are real. It’s a quality imbued in each of us that is independent of what we think or want to believe. Nothing can change it, so it’s unclear why we should accommodate people who believe theirs’ has been diminished or destroyed.

We need a distinction, though. Individuals can believe their moral worth was disrespected without actual disrespect occurring, but it does not follow all instances of perceived offense are illegitimate. We should feel aggrieved when our humanity is ignored or violated, and acting on these feelings brings us closer to justice. I only want to emphasize our unrefined moral intuitions are imperfect guides to whether a transgression actually occurred.

If the theory I’ve described is correct, the internal psychological distress caused by income inequality is unjustified. An unequal distribution of resources is not an affront to anyone’s moral worth. Yes, certain feelings might arise, but they are subtly misguided. That some parties are dissatisfied is no reason to reject what I’ve been saying. Ideally, when people feel disrespected, our first responsibility is to see if disrespect has occurred. If so, we remedy the situation, giving redress when appropriate. Else, we demonstrate why their humanity was unoffended, and how they can come to recognize this. I believe your objection puts us in the latter situation.

Andrew: I’m not convinced, but suppose everything you’re saying is correct. This doesn’t change the fact your theory is politically unworkable. Nobody gets far calling other peoples’ feelings “unjustified” or “misguided.” If we allow income inequality to run rampant, as your theory permits, a new age of political instability will begin. People will feel mistreated, and no amount of philosophizing can change that. Perhaps a new revolution will occur where the wealthy minority is removed from power. Maybe it will be violent. Perhaps the state will dissolve into anarchy — who knows? My point is your theory fails the stability test. No matter how “right” it is, it will never be accepted, and no sane government valuing self-preservation will take it seriously.

Whether or not you think income inequality should be resolved for its own sake, you must recognize its practical implications. Inequality of all sorts foments unrest. Good governance requires a stable government, and constant agitation threatens that. Insofar as you care about good governance, you must also care about income inequality, as attenuating the latter preserves the former. You might not think income inequality is inherently bad, but related commitments can force you to acknowledge it’s a problem.

Parker: You’re right, but I think these distinctions are important. I admit if I was a policymaker, I would keep an eye on inequality and ensure it’s not too severe. Yet, my interest in economic inequality would be derivative in that it stems from an interest in social stability. There is, I maintain, nothing morally repugnant about dramatic differences in wealth. What’s dangerous about inequality are the riots and unrest that might ensue if it gets too dramatic. Social stability is important enough for me to sacrifice some of my ideals, but this doesn’t change my philosophical beliefs. There are good theoretical reasons why economic equality is not inherently valuable, but I don’t want my policymakers dying on that hill. Anarchy doesn’t listen to theoretical reasons.

Andrew: I’m glad we see eye-to-eye on that. I still think economic equality is independently important, but at least I understand why you believe otherwise. I also think it’s interesting how your relatively extreme philosophical belief is tempered when it confronts certain political facts.

Parker: Yeah, it’s interesting.

Here is the link to the Minverva article. The main ideas covered in the dialogue aren’t particularly original. For instance, Harry Frankfurt’s article on economic inequality has heavily influenced my thinking.

My personal views on economic inequality aren’t Andrew’s and aren’t Parker’s. I think Parker’s onto something deep and important, but I have reservations about some of what she says. If you want to hear my full thoughts, send me an email and we can chat.