Earlier this week I claimed you rarely hear progressives argue that income inequality is a problem since for them it just is an injustice. But there’s another reason you rarely hear them make arguments about why income inequality is morally wrong: their actual arguments are terrible.
CNN columnist John D. Sutter recently asked four people — Nigel Warburton, a freelance philosopher and writer; Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; Thomas Pogge, director of the Global Justice Program at Yale; and Kentaro Toyama, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley — to answer the question, “Is income inequality ‘morally wrong’?”
Sutter only summarizes their arguments, but it’s doubtful they would become more coherent or persuasive if they were in book-length form. So let’s examine each of the summaries:
Pogge: Inequality turns us into ‘Downton Abbey’
“It undermines the social fabric,” said Pogge, the Yale professor. He told me this idea comes from a University of Michigan philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson. “It basically creates a multi-class society — a society in which you have people who have to flatter and endear themselves and have to be servile. And other people dominate.”
This is the standard Marxist view of class conflict between capitalists (bourgeoisie) and wage-workers (the proletariat) that applies to every form of monetary inequality. To prevent such a “multi-class” society we’d need to eliminate all service related industries — from waiters to lawyers — since they require people to “flatter and endear themselves” in order to provide what most of us consider “customer service.” Do progressive truly believe this is a reasonable and workable option?
Toyama: Wealth is rad; human suffering isn’t
Eliminating suffering is what matters most. Beyond that, extreme wealth is an incentive for people to work harder. “Morality, on some level, is the avoidance of suffering,” he said, “or at least the decrease of suffering. And where, in the United States, we have the financial wealth to be able to address everyone’s direct suffering, the fact that we’re not doing so is the basis for claiming that something is morally wrong.”
Toyama’s argument isn’t so much about income inequality as it is about insufficient wealth redistribution. If simple redistribution of wealth eliminated human suffering then the claim might have some merits. But while some suffering can be reduced by such welfare, exchange of money and resources from the rich to the poor has historically been shown to be insufficient in either eliminating suffering or enhancing human flourishgin. Also, not all redistributive suffering-reduction measures can be considered moral. For example, if I give $10 to a homeless alcoholic for the purpose of buying a bottle a of gin, thereby reducing the physical elements of his addiction, I’ve closed some of the wealth inequality gap. Yet I’ve also made myself immorally complicit in his vice and done nothing to prevent his future suffering.
Pogge: Extreme inequality ruins democracy
When inequality becomes extreme, it undermines democracy, as the late philosopher John Rawls and others have argued, because it creates unequal access to the political system and to positions of power.
One person, one vote — yeah. But one person with millions to spend has much more influence. “What is problematic in the United States is the political system … is one that is quite substantially dominated by those people that have money,” said Pogge, the Yale professor. “They can, in the American system, yield a substantial amount of influence on the legislation through lobbying and therefore expand their advantaged position.”
This isn’t an argument against income inequality so much as an argument against something else progressives like Pogge do not like. Unless we adopt a purely Marxist system of government (i.e., one that cannot exist in the real world), then this will always be a problem no matter how much income inequality is eliminated. But even then, it would simply shift the power from the category of “people with a lot of money” to “people who are in the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.” How is that any better?
Warburton: Jesus wants us to be poor
In the Biblical tradition, there are parables and sayings that cast the rich in a negative light, implying it’s wrong to hold too much wealth, especially if you’re not using it to help less fortunate people. See Matthew 19:24: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” “There’s something immoral, from the Christian perspective, about being very rich,” said Warburton, the author and podcaster. “That’s explicit.” (Warburton happens to be atheist, by the way.)
This one is almost too dumb to deserve a response. No, there is nothing immoral from the Christian perspective about being very rich. There is something immoral, from the Christian perspective, about lacking a sense of neighborly love and charity. But that has nothing to do with how much money a person has in the bank and everything to do with one’s attitude toward mammon.
Pogge: The size of the rich-poor gap matters
Some inequality is acceptable to pretty much everyone these days. No one is arguing for a fully equal society. But the degree of inequality really does matter when you’re trying to determine whether inequality is moral or amoral, said Pogge, the Yale professor. When extreme inequality sets in, that’s when social and political problems follow.
His best estimate for a fair distribution is the Palma Ratio, which measures how much wealth the top 10% holds compared to the bottom 40%. Ideally, those amounts would be equal.
There is nothing magical about the “Palma Ratio” or any other similar metric that makes it a legitimate test for what levels of income inequality are immoral. But it serves as a marker that allows progressives off the hook. Inevitably, when you point out that a consistent moral claim about income inequality would require redistributing more of their income to the poor, they resort to special pleading. It’s not the income between what they make and what the poor makes, they say, it’s what the really, really rich earn compared to the wages of the poor. Such claims show that the concern for some progressives is not really about objective morality, but about their own subjective envy.
Sutter/Rawls: Inequality is bad if the poor don’t benefit, too
I’ll end this list back on John Rawls, the philosopher whose 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice,” is a must-read (or at least a must-become-familiar-with) for people interested in this topic. One of Rawls’ theories is that inequality can be justified only when it benefits everyone in society, particularly those who are most poor and vulnerable.
This is another example of why Rawls is one of the most overrated political philosophers in history. The critical flaw with Rawls criteria is that it doesn’t explain either (1) who gets to determine who does and does not benefit from inequality, or (2) how such judgments can or should be made. It’s certainly not obvious how people are hurt or benefit from other people having more wealth. For instance, many of the working poor may not be able to afford such “luxuries” as smartphones or high-speed Internet access that are available to people who have more wealth. Would the poor be better off if no one could afford them? Of course not. Indeed, the poor would be worse off if the inequality gap were closed, if it meant that all people were poorer.
And now we come to the only reasonable and coherent answer to the question.
Brooks: Inequality isn’t a moral problem; opportunity is
In this school of thought, it doesn’t matter if the mayor of New York City is worth $27 billion (he is) as long as everyone in the city has an equal chance to succeed. That’s the view of Brooks, from the American Enterprise Institute. I asked him about that city, which is more unequal than any other metro in the U.S.
“The truth is there are a lot of really, really wealthy people there. Great! That’s a morally neutral concept,” he said. But not all of them have an equal opportunity at success, he said, in part because schools don’t perform well in all neighborhoods. That’s morally bankrupt. . . . Fix economic mobility, Brooks said, not inequality. And let the rich do their thing.
Brooks, of course, is absolutely right: Social mobility matters—and income inequality does not. What matters is not equality, but fairness.
I appreciate Sutter posting these moral arguments and hope we see similar discussions in the future. The sooner more people become exposed to these arguments the sooner we can quit talking nonsense about income inequality.