Notes From Babel

What Really Bothers Us: Poverty or Inequality?

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I like this hypothetical by Jason Brennan over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, positing two competing societies, one which equalizes wealth, and the other which does not but expands economically at a much faster rate such that, within a number of years, it yields to its poor a greater absolute measure of wealth than the poor enjoy in the more equalized society.

This sets up many interesting questions.  Is a society better that views wealth inequality as intrinsically evil?  Is there any intrinsic value in property rights and owning one’s own labor?  Does it matter whether wealth inequality actually leads to greater absolute wealth, even for its poor, than if wealth were equalized?  If so, does it matter how long we’d have to wait for that greater absolute wealth to materialize?  Must it occur within a single generation?  Are there intergenerational equity arguments at stake, such that the poor are morally obligated to choose to endure wealth inequality if it meant their children would enjoy greater absolute wealth?

Not surprisingly, many of the comments on the post fight vigorously against the hypothetical, insisting it attempts to make empirical claims about the real world when it explicitly doesn’t.  But I found this comment by Andrew Levine particularly troubling:

The starting baseline still matters a lot to the answer. Developing countries rely on growth more than developed countries do. Once it’s feasible for every (or nearly every) citizen to get food, clean water, education, travel, and some other things that are taken for granted in developed countries, and which are essential to being free to pursue one’s destiny from youth to death, relative wealth becomes more important than further growth if that growth contributes to widening inequalities.

I drew precisely the opposite conclusion as Mr. Levine:  Once everyone has access to food, clean water, education, travel (!), etc., how can it be said that “relative wealth becomes more important”?  Certainly, it becomes less important, no?  Once the poor are doing ok, can’t we then, finally, start letting people keep what they earn?  If even at this point we can’t honor basic notions of procedural justice, we must be living in a society that either values substantive property rights at effectively zero, or is so incredibly petty that even though its members enjoy all the basic goods and amenities “that are taken for granted in developed countries,” they still refuse to tolerate even the existence of accumulations of earned wealth.

I do not maintain that grim a view of my fellow man, and I believe most Americans are not so petulant or discontented as to buy into such an extreme version of redistributionist justice.


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