Paul Graham on Inequality

One of the essays in Paul Graham's book Hackers and Painters discusses the inequality issue, an issue much on Pun Salad's mind lately. (For example, here, here, here, here, and here.) Graham's essay is is a refreshing change from the usual arguments seen from economists, philosophers, or political scientists. I'll quote the first four paragraphs:

When people care enough about something to do it well, those who do it best tend to be far better than everyone else. There's a huge gap between Leonardo and second-rate contemporaries like Borgognone. You see the same gap between Raymond Chandler and the average writer of detective novels. A top-ranked professional chess player could play ten thousand games against an ordinary club player without losing once.

Like chess or painting or writing novels, making money is a very specialized skill. But for some reason we treat this skill differently. No one complains when a few people surpass all the rest at playing chess or writing novels, but when a few people make more money than the rest, we get editorials saying this is wrong.

Why? The pattern of variation seems no different from any other skill. What causes people to react so strongly when the skill is making money?

I think there are three reasons we treat making money as different: the misleading model of wealth we learn as children; the disreputable way in which, till recently, most fortunes were accumulated; and the worry that great variations in income are somehow bad for society. As far as I can tell, the first is mistaken, the second outdated, and the third empirically false. Could it be that, in a modern democracy, variation in income is actually a sign of health?

Graham makes a good case, pleasantly free of the sheen of apology in a lot of defenses of inequality. It makes (for example), Jacob Hacker's response essay at the Cato Unbound online magazine look a bit limp, to my mind.

Unfortunately, this essay is not one that's available at his website, so you'll have to pick up the book for the rest. The website does contain a different essay on the topic, also great, check it out.