As I wrote in another post, I think the Ted Talks site will keep me supplied with material for years to come. The attraction is the shallowness that is weirdly masquerading as high brow intellectualism. It’s a post-modern version of the old Three Stooges bit Swingin’ the Alphabet. Well, if it were on purpose. Lampooning high culture can be quite clever, when it is done on purpose. The TED Talk crowd is doing it by accident. This one on inequality is funny to me for some reason.
The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling. It seems, even to many of us who benefit from this inequality, that something should be done to reduce or eliminate it. But why should we think this? What are the strongest reasons for trying to bring about greater equality of income and wealth?
One obvious reason for redistributing resources from the rich to the poor is simply that this is a way of making the poor better off. In his TED Talk on “effective altruism,” Peter Singer advances powerful reasons of this kind for voluntary redistribution: Many people in the world are poor, and the improvement in their lives that richer people can bring about by giving money is enormous by comparison with the small sacrifice that this would involve.
How much you want to bet that T. M. Scanlon, the guy responsible for those lines, gives next to nothing to charity? The people most troubled about the poor tend to do the least for the poor. That’s unfair of me, I know, but I’m not a nice person. As to his query, that answer has been supplied a million times in a million places. Lefty gets comfortably set in the upper middle-class and then starts to feel guilty. Lacking any sense of self-awareness, they declare it a “deeply troubling” social problem, which means more laws and more taxes on the rest of us.
Amazingly, the idea that there may be a reason why some people have nothing and others have extra is never mentioned in these disquisitions on inequality. I see poor people every day. I can give a lot of reasons for it. I’ve been to some dirt poor countries. In five minutes I can point out a dozen reasons why they are poor. Giving these people money is not solving anything. Once again, the people who are most concerned about poverty know the least about poor people.
Further along, the reasons he gives for wanting to force you to do something about inequality (as long as it does not cost him time or money) are interesting.
1. Economic inequality can give wealthier people an unacceptable degree of control over the lives of others.
If wealth is very unevenly distributed in a society, wealthy people often end up in control of many aspects of the lives of poorer citizens: over where and how they can work, what they can buy, and in general what their lives will be like. As an example, ownership of a public media outlet, such as a newspaper or a television channel, can give control over how others in the society view themselves and their lives, and how they understand their society.
Where has this ever been otherwise? Name a newspaper of any size owned by poor people. Name a poor person owned TV station. How about a government staffed with hobos? Under every imagined form of government in human history, the rulers have been in charge of the ruled. That’s why they are called rulers. They also have more stuff, more food and power over the lives of the ruled.
2. Economic inequality can undermine the fairness of political institutions.
If those who hold political offices must depend on large contributions for their campaigns, they will be more responsive to the interests and demands of wealthy contributors, and those who are not rich will not be fairly represented.
Steve Sailer likes to point out that liberals forget they have been in charge for close to a century. For forty years in America we have had laws against rich people making big contributions to office holders. In that time the influence of the rich has grown so much that government pretty much caters to them exclusively. Europe has seen a similar results. Maybe that’s a clue?
3. Economic inequality undermines the fairness of the economic system itself.
Economic inequality makes it difficult, if not impossible, to create equality of opportunity. Income inequality means that some children will enter the workforce much better prepared than others. And people with few assets find it harder to access the first small steps to larger opportunities, such as a loan to start a business or pay for an advanced degree.
Again, when has this ever been otherwise? The various Marxist schemes that professor Scanlon prefers have produced exactly this result. In fact, they were exaggerated under communism.
4. Workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that produces national income, have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce.
What constitutes a fair share is of course controversial. One answer is provided by John Rawls’ Difference Principle, according to which inequalities in wealth and income are permissible if and only if these inequalities could not be reduced without worsening the position of those who are worst-off. You don’t have to accept this exact principle, though, in order to believe that if an economy is producing an increasing level of goods and services, then all those who participate in producing these benefits — workers as well as others — should share in the result.
But what did they produce? In my neighborhood, there are households that have not produced anything but mayhem for generations. In some of our more vibrant neighborhoods, there are three generations of some households in the same state prison. How about the guy who sells meth for a living? He may not be a burden on the state, as far welfare and prison costs, but he is burden on society. What’s his share?
The trouble with these disquisitions on inequality is not that they are mere sentimentality. The trouble is the sentiment is imaginary. No one really believes inequality is a problem, save for maybe a few bitter Marxists in your local state college faculty lounge. These are those old rancid hippies who have posters of Che Guevara on their office wall. No, the people who prattle on about inequality simply wish to replace the current inequalities that don’t favor them with a new set that do favor them.
You’ll note that the people convulsed by Piketty’s book are the managerial classes. These are the maidservants and coat holders for the ruling elite. A guy like T. M. Scanlon looks at a Mitt Romney and wonders how this boob got to be a billionaire. An Elizabeth Warren, making calls to beg for campaign cash wonders why she, a Harvard professor, should be begging these rich bastards for money. The credentialed members of the managerial class want more power and thus they complain about inequality.