(Even) More on Inequality

It seems to be Inequality Season out there. No sooner than we post two articles on the issue (here and here), more good stuff pops up on the web that's worth pointing out and commenting upon.

Max Borders at Tech Central Station posts on (perhaps) a solution of the mystery of why (some) folks get so het up about inequality: it's a combination of emotions hard-wired in our brains left over from Stone Age tribal times. We simply are built to feel (a) guilt for being more fortunate than someone else; (b) envy, for being less fortunate than someone else; and, finally, (c) indignation when we, as third parties, observe an inegalitarian situation between others.

These emotions are (the argument goes) appropriate for small tribes struggling for survival against nature and other tribes. The emotions become counterproductive, however, as "society" grows larger than the typical tribal unit.

So is that what's going on with inequality-phobes like Paul Krugman? Is he just letting his old tribal emotions come to the fore, then dressing them up afterward in language appropriate to the pages of the New York Times? Hey, maybe.

Also beginning today at Cato Unbound is a more philosophical take on the issue. The link will take you to a "lead essay" from David Schmidtz; reaction essays will soon follow. Schmidtz's essay is dense but extremely sensible, I won't summarize it here. I will quote one paragraph that effectively debunks the oft-used athletic-race metaphor used by egalitarians:

In a race, equal opportunity matters. In a race, people need to start on an equal footing. Why? Because a race's purpose is to measure relative performance. Measuring relative performance, though, is not a society's purpose. We form societies with the Joneses [as in: "keeping up with the Joneses"] so that we may do well, period, not so that we may do well relative to the Joneses. To do well, period, people need a good footing, not an equal footing. No one needs to win, so no one needs a fair chance to win. No one needs to keep up with the Joneses, so no one needs a fair chance to keep up with the Joneses. No one needs to put the Joneses in their place or to stop them from pulling ahead. The Joneses are neighbors, not competitors.
It's interesting how easily a bad metaphor can corrupt further thought. Using an athletic race as a metaphor for society is just one example. So is using a pie as a metaphor for income or wealth distribution, for that matter.

Last Modified 2007-04-02 12:43 PM EDT