Tuesday, April 9, 2019


I am not a sociopolitical philosopher and probably this post will just show my ignorance.

Here is a line of thought I used to find plausible.

Inequality is clearly not intrinsically bad: if it were, it would be worth making those who are best off be less well off even if nobody else were made better off, and that is absurd. Of course, inequality is well-known to contribute to subjective unhappiness, but if inequality is not intrinsically bad, then that contribution seems to be just a function of the vice of envy. So we don’t need to worry about inequality as such. Of course we need to worry about people not having sufficient resources to flourish, but that worry is independent of worries about inequality.

On this line of thought, we have two options:

  1. Inequality is intrinsically bad.

  2. We don’t need to worry about inequality except insofar as it contributes to other bad things (like subjective unhappiness, social unrest, etc.).

But today I realized there is a third option. There need be nothing intrinsically bad in a positive cancer test result, but it is diagnostic of a very bad thing, so we need to worry about it. The same could be true of inequality:

  1. We should worry about inequality because it is diagnostic of other bad things.

Specifically, it could be that significant inequality is a sign of a poor distribution of resources. For instance, a thousand dollars can make an enormous difference to the flourishing of someone below the poverty line but makes no noticeable difference to the flourishing of a billionaire. Thus, significant inequality could be evidence that we could significantly improve the flourishing of one while only insignificantly decreasing the flourishing of another, say by taking a thousand dollars from the richest individual and giving it to a randomly selected person below the poverty line. And thus we would have reason to worry about inequality even if inequality in and of itself wasn’t bad.

Of course, whether in fact significant inequality is evidence of a poor distribution of resources is an empirical question for the economists to figure out. My naive thought above that things would be better if a thousand dollars were moved from a rich person to a poor person assumes that nobody else would be affected. But that is, of course, not empirically clear. Such a transfer could, for instance, lead to the rich person correspondingly decreasing their charitable contributions to a local soup kitchen, or might sufficiently increase the chance of the rich person moving to a location with lower taxes to make the expected value of the transfer be negative, or might decrease incentives to hard work that produces greater benefits to society. Or not.

I am not qualified to judge the empirical question. But at least I’ve learned something from the above line of thought. While the view that inequality is intrinsically bad does seem philosophically mistaken, it is possible to be very worried about inequality without subscribing to this mistaken view.

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