The Inequity of Equality
the Occupy movement is bringing our consciousness toward wealth inequality, and so I go there too.
Wealth is a measure of power and social position. Human society tends to develop with a range of social statuses. We can see even how apes honor an alpha male and other higher born individuals, conferring privileges of sex and food to these individuals. This social system has a clear evolutionary advantage; the process of natural selection is accelerated by individuals themselves selecting which genes will characterize the next generation. In addition to this, one decision maker is better than many (as long as they are good decisions).
This kind of hereditary and force based hierarchy system prevailed for the vast majority of human history, written and unwritten. Recently in human history many merchants became wealthier than hereditary nobles, upsetting notions of social status and power. Now wealth is power and the issue of wealth inequality has risen in prominence as the wealth gap has rapidly widened.
Now, before proceeding we must acknowledge that jealousy is the impetus for battling wealth inequality. The poor want rich people’s money because they want to be like the rich (though they would loathe admitting it). We all carry a certain class anxiety, evidenced by how few individuals would characterize themselves as upperclass. In this country making a quarter million dollars a year is considered upper middle class by many in that status because of the many people with even more money. Yet if we looked at the rest of the world we would realize that 90% of us are upper class, and indeed middle class families have a standard of living higher than most kings.
So we can sense that there are little problems with our desires and the manner in which we compare ourselves, and with that said we continue: unequal distribution of wealth is unfair. This is a statement which is true, but masks another truth which we are far less willing to admit: equal distribution of wealth is unfair.
It’s easy for me (less for some others) to see how wealth inequality is unfair, but I’ll give a little Marxist lesson to reiterate: say 100 people are born in a small town in Germany at the beginning of the industrial revolution. One of these people inherits a large sum of money from his family and the others are peasants. The man with money sends himself to school and then starts a factory which employs the other 99 in making shoes. He pays these individuals LESS than the value of what is being done so that he can make a profit, thereby raising his standard of living enormously and allowing him to open up more factories and go to more schools. Meanwhile the factory workers are busting their asses off and being exploited continuously such that they have far fewer opportunities than the factory owner, and this wealth inequality is accelerated. It is important to note that while there is a sense that it was the talent and ingenuity of the factory owner which gave him the factory, there is a much, much stronger sense that this talent and ingenuity were a manner of luck, being born into the right family. While he is smarter than his employees, that is not intrinsic, it is socially constructed. And even if something genetically predisposed him to be more talented and intelligent, there’s no reason to think that just because he was lucky enough to be born smart that he should suffer less than others. If it was just luck that made him have a much easier life than his employees, why shouldn’t we redistribute his wealth to his workers to make things more fair?
This is precisely what the welfare state does, in partnership with unions. I like welfare, and I like unions, but over the past century these reactions to capitalistic exploitation have caused a backlash. I can see this backlash when James Dale Davidson talks of an “exploitation of capitalists by workers,” pointing out extreme examples of unions coercing money from factory owners. These reactionary measures in addition to heavy taxes on the rich, while very fair in one sense, are also unfair in another. The rich are forced to pay for more than they benefit from, and entrepreneurship is discouraged when the entrepreneur knows half of his money will be taken away. If you put yourself in the position of a rich person, it’s unfair that you should be forced to give away the money you “earned.” This is of course very selfish and overlooks the fact that no money could be made without the help of others, yet still has some truth to it. To reinforce this point I ask that you put yourself in the position of the factory owner (I know this is quite different from the way we usually put other people’s shoes on). You were certainly very lucky to have money and an education to start a factory with, but does that mean you shouldn’t go forth with the factory? the employment will provide a sustained increase in the standard of living of the 99 peasants around you, so it’s charitable. when your workers start to argue that you’re exploiting them and demand more money you are somewhat confused– yes you have more money, but you are continually reinvesting it in the factory, steadily improving the standard of living of your workers. They could all live much more comfortable if you gave them all of your money, but then the factory couldn’t run. Every bit more you pay them screws them over in the long run. It’s a bit like they’re trying to hack open the goose that lays golden eggs. The morality is tricky and self centered, but it’s there in its annoying little way.
Now, the unhappy truth you will have to accept is that you are not so different from the factory owner at all. Indeed there are so many starving people who could benefit from the money you spent on your new smart phone or your college education or whatever little thing you just bought. We can try and justify ourselves by saying we are building ourselves up so that we may help everyone more later, but then we start to sound selfish, elitist, like the factory owner. Truly, if you have anger toward the top 1% you must ask yourself why you choose to let people die who could be fed with your spare change. It should go without saying that the problem is not a conspiracy from the top, it’s all of us. We are all the 1%.
Let’s pull back a little and think more about what we’re talking about. When we talk about wealth equality we’re really talking about standard of living. No one thinks that everyone should have a right to have power over people, they should just be powerful enough to enjoy a good standard of living. The bare minimum of a good standard of living includes proper food, shelter, drinking water, and other essential basic needs. Psychologically speaking, our individual happiness increases only to the point where all of our basic needs are met: beyond that the millionaire is basically as happy as the poor man. If all the people in the world were fed and sheltered, I would have much less of a problem with wealth equality, but as it is, every dime we spend toward a purpose other than meeting our basic needs is in a sense stolen from the poor of the world.
As I mentioned in my last post, the singularity will not be an egalitarian revolution, despite what we may all desire right now. While technology empowers individuals over larger social structures, it empowers individuals with more money faster. The wealth gap is going to grow exponentially following the singularity, which many will lament in a pessimistic way, claiming that human society is on a constant downward spiral. Yet at the same time the standard of living of everyone will rise dramatically and basic needs will be met with far fewer resources. The “unfairness” of wealth inequality will wither away in our minds as we realize that many civilizations across the universe had a head start on us and are enormously more powerful. Furthermore, it will become harder to be jealous of individuals when their accelerating power undermines their own individualism: should we be jealous that Google is so powerful?
As people become as powerful as companies and then gods the rest of humanity will envy them I suppose, but I don’t believe that we will have the same urge to take their power away and give it to the less powerful, just as there wouldn’t be an urge to take power away from alien civilizations just because they had an unfair head start. I’m not sure how else to relate this, but the fact is that we will likely come to accept “wealth inequality,” and this won’t be a bad thing.
I think the conversation will likely shift more toward happiness. The Singularity implies our ability to augment our subjective well being, willing ourselves into happiness (through drugs or brain augmentation or whatever). It won’t really matter to people that they have far less power than others if they can make themselves happy with what they have. Perhaps the power to augment happiness will be a new measure of wealth.
Posted on January 18, 2012, in Consciousness, Ethics, Technological Singularity, Values and tagged occupy wall street, the 99 percent, wealth distribution, wealth gap, wealth inequality. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.