Column on Inequality


Tibor R. Machan*

Much consternation is spent on income and related inequality. Or call it unequal advantages in life. As if it were some kind of moral or political imperative that we must all enjoy equal benefits and burdens, though few will say why that would be a good thing or why it is right to aim for it, considering that throughout nature inequality is clearly the norm.

Isaiah Berlin is supposed to have stated that equality is a virtual axiomatic norm of social-political life, so Amartya Sen, the Harvard Nobel Laureate in economic science tells us in his book The Idea of Justice (2009). Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago Laws School and Philosophy Department also adheres to this idea. Indeed, it is widely embraced by philosophers at the top schools everywhere. It has made its appearance in political history mainly in the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yet, as hard as I have tried to locate an argument for the idea, I haven’t been able to find any. Even as a matter of moral intuition, something many contemporary thinkers in ethics favor, it doesn’t appear to be plausible that people everyone ought to be enjoying the same conditions of life and that when they don’t, it becomes a political and legal imperative to rearrange things so that they will. It was the late Robert Nozick who in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973) advanced an argument against the intuitive power of egalitarianism. He did this with his famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment in which we are all equally well off but then many of us decide to contribute some of our resources to Wilt so we can see him play his fabulous basketball game, which immediately upsets the supposedly desirable equality among us all since, of course, Wilt will be but the rest of us will not be very rich. So this will require constant readjustment, wealth redistribution, by the government which will of course have to be very powerful, much more so that the rest of us, and this once again shows that inequality is unavoidable.

Of course, we have different kinds of equality before us and some do appear to be imperative, such as equal protection of our rights in the legal system. But this is about a procedural matters, not about results. But perhaps the fact of our humanity alone supports the equality that egalitarians promote? Yet while people are alike in all of them being human, this itself goes hand in hand with immense legitimate diversity and inquality among us.
Just take a peak around you and confirm the plain fact that inequality is everywhere–in talents, beauty, athletic prowess, luck (good and bad), etc., etc. And there is, of course, that fact of the widespread inequality of wealth enjoyed by us, the inequality that appears to annoy so many people. I am not convinced it really is since we all live with it day in and out everywhere and peace still prevails among most of us. No doubt there are people who are heavily beset with envy and for them all inequality of advantage justifies massive political efforts to even things out. (Consider Occupy Wall Street as a case in point!)

Of course in some areas equality is imperative, if only to make things more interesting. For example, in foot races and such the competitors all start at the same point–none is supposed to enjoy an unequal advantage, at least not in their initial positioning. (Yet even there, some start with a good night’s sleep behind them, others with nerves having kept them awake all night long.) The oft mentioned “level playing field” is a myth, too, since while the field may be level in some cases, much else isn’t.

In life, including human affairs, inequality is routine. What matters is that whatever inequality exists not be the result of violence, if coercion. If my fellow marathon runners are unequal in their readiness for the race, so be it. But if they try to undermine the readiness of their competitors by spiking their breakfast or water bottles or tripping them up during the race, that’s where things become intolerable. Similarly with wealth. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet but got there peacefully, without using force against those who didn’t, such is life and upsetting it merely increases the coercive power of some people (thus introducing the most insidious form of inequality among human beings).

So unlike in the wilds where many animals rule others by means of physical strength and brutality, in human society advantages are to be gained and kept without resorting to force or fraud. Once those are ejected from the sphere, the outcome cannot be objectionable other than as a matter of a wish or hope. Even those would be unbecoming, which is why envy is a vice, not some admirable sentiment toward those who are well off.

*Tibor Machan is the author of Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (2010).

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