American Inequality

America is the land of equality. “All men [and women] are created equal.” But what sort of equality?

One answer is seen in the recent Strauss-Kahn episode. American law enforcement (initially) took the word of a black immigrant woman, a hotel maid, against one of the world’s most powerful men. The Economist queried, would this have happened in Paris, or Rome? – implying it wouldn’t.

This is the essence of Americanism – that all people stand equally in dignity and worth.

However, lately there’s been increasing concern over the issue of material equality, with apparently growing disparities of wealth and income. I’ve given this a lot of thought (as evidenced by previous blog postings: June 21, 2008 & May 11, 2010).

I would concede that some material inequality comes from injustices – various rip-offs – and a more just world would be more equal. But I reject the idea that material inequality per se is unjust.

(Disclosure: I count myself as wealthy. Not born to it, but successful.)

The leading egalitarian philosopher was John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice. He distilled all people’s advantages or disadvantages down to mere luck rather than merit – even if you prosper due to smarts, being smart is a matter of luck rather than something you somehow deserved. Thus Rawls argued for the “difference principle” – advantages enjoyed by some should be tolerated only to the extent they redound even more to the benefit of less advantaged people. For example, high doctor incomes would be justifiable only as necessary to get health care to the less fortunate.

Rawls held that any implicit social contract must embody this principle. He proposed the thought experiment of a social contract negotiated under a “veil of ignorance” wherein nobody knows beforehand what societal niche they’ll occupy. In those circumstances, Rawls argued, no one would agree to risk deprivation.

I find none of this persuasive. Even under a “veil of ignorance,” rational people would favor a social model prone to inequality if that meant better outcomes overall – which is the case where people who contribute to society can earn and keep rewards for their efforts.

Typical of the Left, Rawls views wealth and other societal goodies like manna falling from the sky, something to be distributed, not something produced and earned. There isn’t a single line in his fat book concerning wealth creation. But if the rewards for wealth creation are negated by an enforced equality, it will be an equality of poverty (as Soviet communism demonstrated – for the proletariat at least).

True, if you’re smart, industrious and virtuous, all that may be chalked up to luck. Likewise, it’s unlucky if you’re stupid, slothful and venal. But so what? Justice means nothing if not people reaping what they sow, for good or ill. A murderer is unlucky to be the kind of person who would be in that situation, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished. Thus, Rawls has not propounded a “theory of justice” at all – it’s actually a theory for removing justice from the societal equation, and distributing rewards on a different basis.

“Social justice” is nevertheless the byword of egalitarians. Since “justice” is quintessentially a concept of deservingness, the implication is that the poor deserve better – and correspondingly the rich deserve worse. This makes “social justice” a faulty concept for helping the disadvantaged. It should not depend on judging that the rich deserve less. Society should instead help the disadvantaged because it’s humane to alleviate suffering. The aim should be minimally decent living standards for everyone – not living standards being less unequal. The bare fact that A has more than B is not an injustice. In fact, a society without such disparities of wealth and income – everyone getting the same, regardless of desert – would be highly unjust.

We hear the phrase “obscene wealth.” Wealth cannot be obscene if legitimately earned. Bill Gates did not get rich unjustly, but mainly by providing products that many millions wanted. He may be taxed, as a proper contribution to society; but it’s no kind of justice, “social” or otherwise, to say he just shouldn’t have more than Joe Schmoe who did no such beneficial things, and that some (most? all?) of Gates’s billions should be confiscated in order to make the world’s Schmoes less unequal.

Rising American inequality is not mainly because more people are becoming poor, it’s more becoming rich. Were it the former, that would be bad; but more wealthy people is not a bad thing. A nation with X number of richies and Y non-rich is better off with X+Z rich and Y-Z non-rich. As long as the Y’s are not made worse off, which is basically true. It’s a huge mistake to believe the rich get rich at others’ expense. Not to say it never happens; but most wealth is gained by making others better off, for which they willingly pay (as in the case of Gates).

The broad trends of American society are consistent with this. “Poverty” numbers have been pretty steady over decades, but the definition of “poverty” has evolved, and today’s government poverty line applies to people whose living standard, not long ago, would have been considered solidly middle class.

Photo by Walker Evans

I don’t minimize the problem of people who face a dead end because they can’t get work (often because they’re frankly unemployable.) Yet we don’t have real poverty in America anymore. To see what real poverty looks like, go to Haiti, where people eat literal mudpies. Or read Evans and Agee’s portrait of 1930’s rural Alabamans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Their diet wasn’t mudpies, but nothing you’d care to touch. Women’s clothes were made from used burlap sacks. Work was grindingly hard, and the only compensatory entertainment was fucking. Health care was nonexistent. And that was the white folks.

I often wonder if the true impetus behind all the harping on American wealth inequality is social concern – or plain old envy.

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3 Responses to “American Inequality”

  1. neal Says:

    Very well stated. America is about equal OPPORTUNITY not equal OUTCOMES, there is a huge difference. We all opportunities for success, it is all about how we pursue those opportunities!

  2. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    from Frank’s wife Therese — On a regular basis each year, Frank and I make significant donations and contributions to a variety of non-profits and charities, both local and international. Just today I delivered donations to a local hurricane-relief drive. I purchase many books each year, a good deal of them from our local indie bookstore (I am probably one of the top customers in the poetry department). Frank has loaned money to struggling members of our extended family. Frank and I gave funds to the local city soccer team so that some poor city child could play on the team. In many diverse ways, Frank and I support our communities as dependable donors and as faithful customers.

    [FSR comment: My dear wife tends to be defensive in this regard. Small charities do not justify our wealth. What does justify it is having been earned via jobs that contributed to society (as most jobs do) and a business that provides value to customers (as most businesses do). Rawls would say we are merely lucky — lucky to be the kind of people who could succeed this way. But, again, so what? What is justice if not people rewarded for such behavior? What kind of anarchic world would it be if such efforts gained no reward?]

  3. ro@quantconsulting.com Says:

    Good job beating up that straw man! 🙂

    Lefties do not want to homogenize wealth nor do they want massive redistribution. Lefties and Righties and Americans and non-Americans want pretty much the same thing, an ever improving existence at the individual, family, city, country, and world scales. A major part of achieving this is wealth production — go capitalism! — but there are also other important ideals we strive for. One such priority is to help those who are less fortunate than we, to keep them from falling below some minimum standards. That is what Lefties mean when they bemoan the increasing inequality or speak of social justice. Righties want the same thing, though, perhaps, the words they use are more appealing to you.

    As we have prospered as a nation, we have become more and more able to help the less fortunate, and this has enabled a steady strengthening of our safety net. Despite that it is not strictly capitalism, society now provides, more or less free of per-use fees, services such as police & fire fighting, roads, and public education. Despite that it is not strictly capitalism, society has established limits to protect employees from abusive practices, by outlawing indentured servitude, instituting a minimum wage, ensuring minimum safety standards. For some decades now, we have been wealthy enough that we can keep our emergency rooms open for all who need them, regardless of ability to pay. And, in recent years, we have become wealthy enough that we can afford to raise the standard to include basic non-emergency medical care. (That our current national LiebermanCare boon for insurance companies is not the right way to go about this is a separate discussion.)

    Lefties and Righties don’t disagree as to whether the wealthy can have wealth and they don’t disagree as to whether the less fortunate should be helped. Any talk of differences this broad is just rhetoric. The disagreement is the extent to which we should be strengthening the safety net at any given point in time. Even though I don’t always agree with you, I like it when you address specific issues on the merits, such as whether the wealthy should receive social security benefits. But I have trouble understanding this posting, where you seem to lump all possible non-capitalism-based help for the less fortunate into one giant undifferentiated mass.

    From a slightly different perspective … creating wealth is not the only ideal out there and thus people who create wealth are not the only deserving people out there. In particular, wealth producers are not the only ones whose efforts make them deserving of wealth. I assert that even a person who has had a heap of trouble creating wealth can be quite deserving for other reasons, that such a person has an inalienable right to the wealth that is him/herself (i.e., slavery is illegal) and to a minimum standard of living, and that it would be unfair and unjust for us to steal that wealth from him/her. A strict capitalist might assert that wealth production is the only legitimate way to obtain wealth and that even minimal non-market-based transfers of wealth are charity rather than by right — but I disagree. Ideals that are not strictly capitalist are not thus immaterial to wealth. Democracy demands that we continue to debate the proper extent of this ever-evolving minimal wealth level, but a strict capitalistic assertion that it does not exist is hogwash.

    [FSR comment: Not a straw man. I don’t basically disagree with you (and thanks for your in-depth comment); but what I was addressing was the idea, that is very much implicit in much public discourse concerning inequality, that material inequality is PER SE a bad thing. Rawls was not a marginal thinker, his view has a lot of influence, and many are receptive to some plausible intellectual basis for decrying material inequalities. And you cannot tell me there isn’t a great deal of resentment at the fact that some people have a lot of wealth, regardless of how that wealth was gotten. There are people who do not accept that any wealth (much) above the average is legitimate. I have met them.]

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