Different arguments against inequality

Tue, 22 Oct 2013

In this blog post I wanted to write about three competing arguments against inequality.

Firstly, there is a pragmatic argument, that inequality makes the world a less pleasant place to live in.  It increases crime, leaves the wealthy as well as the poor fearful and leads to resources being disengaged or wasted on marginally worthwhile activities.  In its extreme, it can lead to anarchy or revolution.  The nice thing about this argument is that it doesn't rely on goodwill or ethical arguments, but it can lead to suggestion that we focus on reducing the symptoms of inequality, rather than inequality itself.

Next, there is an absolutist argument that inequality is wrong, and in an ideal world we would be equal.  In some ways this is appealing, as once you take it as given, you remove a lot of the judgement required.  However, I don't think many people are prepared to take it as given.  Most people don't consider absolute equality as being natural or even possible, even if they do consider it ultimately desirable.  Many feel that the steps that would need to be taken to achieve absolute equality would be worse than the problems of inequality - eg state control, socialism, loss of incentive to contribute.

The third argument against inequality is one of fairness.  Humans instinctively like fairness, and a lot see the current levels of inequality as fair.  Arguments that CEOs should not receive hundreds of times the pay of their average worker, or that your wealth shouldn't be determined by who your parents are, fall into this camp.  Generally an appeal to fairness would not lead to absolute equality; people talk about being fairly rewarded for hard work or talent, and generally consider lottery winnings unfair.  And there is a strong fairness argument in the public against people who don't contribute being rewarded.  But, as subjective as fairness is (and difficult to grapple with, at least for me), it seems to be a powerful argument in society against many aspects of inequality.

Right now, I believe we're at a point where all three arguments would imply that we should take steps to reduce inequality from current levels, so there isn't actually a need to decide that one of the three arguments beats the others.  I do, however, believe it is worth bearing all three in mind, ensuring we don't argue against one but ignore than others, or designing measures that address one at the expense of the others.