Why I Care About Inequality

The central thematic thread running through The Disillusioners is the ideological conflict between a religion that teaches that human societies ought to be organised so that the best individuals are rewarded for excellence (The Ancestors) and one that teaches that life is largely random and rewards are typically unearned (The Great Chaos).  While the world of The Disillusioners is imaginary, that conflict gets at something very important to me, which is the present-day political debate over what (if anything), to do about economic inequality.  The novel frames that debate in the terms of the fictional world and cultures I’ve created, but I want to describe my position a bit more plainly.

As you have likely guessed, The Great Chaos is the religion which is more representative of my views.  I think that economic rewards are given out in a largely random fashion, and that’s a huge problem for us as humans.  Let me explain why I say that, and what I think we ought to do about it.

At the core of my belief is a fairly simple fact – an individual consciousness comes into existence in a body without any control over which body it is.  Put more scientifically – you can’t control your genetics.  You are born with the DNA you’re born with, and there’s nothing you can do to control or change that.  Beyond that, you’re born into a complicated mess of other circumstances that you have no control over; things like how much money your parents make, or whether you’re born into a time of war, or what kind of climate the geography you grow up in has.  And yet these things all have enormous impacts on what kind of well-being you’ll have throughout most or even all of your life.

Our current political and economic system rewards people primarily for dumb luck.  If you’re born in a country with tremendous wealth (like Canada), even if you do poorly compared to your fellow Canadians, you’ll still likely do quite well economically compared to people in many parts of the world.  Similarly, if you happen to have the genetic luck to be born with an excellent memory , or an affinity for math, or whatever other talent, you are quite likely to be rewarded for it.  Another significant component of genetic luck is health; many medical conditions (whether mental or physical) can significantly hamper a person’s ability to look after themselves or earn a living.

Our current political system says that it’s perfectly all right to reward people primarily on the basis of things they have no control over.  It says not only that a lottery is an OK way to decide who is affluent and who is poor, but that it is morally correct to use a lottery for that purpose.  I find that position to be both logically absurd and morally troubling.

Many people will object to what I’ve said on the grounds that hard work is what sets people apart.  You may be born with an affinity for math, for example, but only (or primarily) the people who work hard at it will get ahead.  And while I think there is some element of truth in that, it’s a small part of the picture.  Lots of people work extremely hard and receive very little for it.  As an example, I was once employed in an injection moulding factory where I worked harder than I’ve had to at any other job, under worse conditions than I’ve faced anywhere else.  And yet I have never had a lower paying job.  Indeed, I’ve found that the amount of work required is often inversely proportional to the pay.

I was lucky enough to eventually move on to much better (and better paying) work, but many of the people I worked with never made that jump, despite the fact that they also worked hard.  And this is quite common. If we really believed that people ought to be rewarded for things they can control (like hard work) rather than things they can’t (like genetics), people would be paid based on some measure of effort like how many hours they are willing to work, rather than based on what field they work in or what skills they bring.

This is a big part of why I find economic inequality to be immoral.  I don’t believe it is fair for someone’s well-being to be determined primarily by whether they happened to win a lottery they can’t sway and didn’t choose to enter in the first place.  From there it follows in a pretty straight-forward fashion that we ought to ensure some level of equality of economic outcomes, either through tax-based redistribution or through systemic changes that result in people getting paid more equitably.

There is, however, one argument against this view of inequality that I do think needs to be taken seriously, and it goes like this:

One of the things that motivates people is money (or material well-being).  If we do not allow people with greater talents to profit from them, then they won’t make the greatest use of their talents, and that’s bad for everyone.  By letting people earn more for being more talented, they make advances that are beneficial to everyone.  For example, if we don’t let people who are the most qualified to be doctors make more money at it, we’ll limit the pool of talented doctors, and health will suffer generally.  Since we want health generally to improve (I do, at least), even people who earn less money are better off because we allow people with lucky genetics to profit from their talents.

I do think there is some truth to this argument.  While I don’t agree with the argument many economists make that all people are primarily driven by the desire for wealth (I’m not), I do think it is one powerful motivator, and it’s certainly valuable to some people.  There are other sources of innovation (the Internet and GPS were both created by the U.S. government using revenue from taxes, for example), but for this argument to hold we don’t necessarily have to agree that all social benefits are borne of competition for wages and profits, only that a sufficient quantity are for that competition to be valuable to the general welfare.

This is an argument that needs to be taken seriously and incorporated into our ideas about inequality.  But it does not require that we allow unfettered profit-seeking or that we brush aside inequality (or other, collective means of promoting innovation).  What it means is that we should acknowledge the positive effects of competition while also ensuring that people are not punished for being dealt a bad hand.

To a large degree, what I’m describing is the fairly standard view of social democrats, though I think we need to go farther than social democratic parties (like the NDP) typically do.  What we should be aiming for is to ensure that every citizen is able to meet a reasonable standard of living, regardless of their DNA or the situation they were born into.  What it means is that we should look after each other.

Canada already has a single-payer health insurance system, which is good, but a society dedicated to fighting inequality would also have a national dental and pharmacare plan.  A country dedicated to fighting inequality would end homelessness (which, as it happens, saves money, though that’s not the reason we should do it), and beyond that ensure that all people have secure housing of an adequate size and quality.  We should ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water and healthy food (which Canada has shamefully failed to do in many First Nations communities).  In short, we should set a standard of living to which all people ought to be entitled, and we should redistribute wealth to ensure that everyone reaches it.  We can still allow competition, but we should not allow it to interfere with fairness or equality.  Even if we reward some people for winning a lottery, we should not punish others for losing it.

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