It seems to be taken as read nowadays that inequality is a Very Bad Thing, the eradication of which should form the basis of most government policy. There is, of course, a world of difference between equality before the law and equality of outcome, but the idea that our society is fundamentally unjust is now so widely accepted that many people fail to make any distinction. The simple fact that some individuals enjoy advantages currently denied to others is enough to provoke calls for government action.
It has always occurred to me that there is nothing wrong with inequality per se. After all, no one is outraged by the disparity in wealth between a billionaire and a millionaire, or even between someone earning £40,000 a year and someone on £30,000. Concern and indignation only come into play when someone poor enters the equation. And since making that poor person richer will remove them from the equation, it follows that inequality is not really about relative income at all; it’s about the absolute condition of those at the bottom of the pile. Make them richer and inequality will cease to be a problem.
This leads us to consider which economic systems are best at improving the lot of the disadvantaged. Forget about inequality – it’s a red herring. All that matters is making people richer. History suggests the answer is capitalism, so you have to conclude that egalitarians should stop banging on about the gap between rich and poor, and embrace free markets.
I have, of course, taken this a step too far as far as egalitarians are concerned. For them, the problem is always about the gap between rich and poor. They believe that a person’s welfare is adversely affected by the knowledge that there are people in the world better off than themselves. This psychological trauma leads to anger, illness, criminality and any other social ailment you care to mention. For an egalitarian, it is better that we are all equally poor than unequally wealthy.
The evidence for inequality causing a litany of social ills is insubstantial, to say the least. It’s easy to make a statistical link between low income and a higher prevalence of unpleasant social conditions, but that doesn’t prove that one causes the other. It could simply be the case that the same personal qualities that lead people to be successful also result in them being happy, healthy and well-behaved. This explanation seems more plausible than that offered by the egalitarians. Sixty years of welfarism has relieved people of responsibility and financial worry, but has witnessed a rise in crime and a decline in common decency. If the equality lobby is correct, the opposite should be true.
As a general principle, the idea of a more equal society sounds desirable and just, but, as with anything else, there are trade-offs to be made. If you choose to ignore these trade-offs then the case for equality is enticing. If you concern yourself with the real-world effects of our actions, then it is less so.
The first victim of equality is freedom. You cannot create a more equal society without stopping people from fulfilling their potential, keeping their money or exploiting their advantage. If you believe avoiding the trauma caused by inequality is more important than being free this case needs to be made explicitly, and it must be acknowledged that there is something fundamentally tyrannical about this view.
Freedom is our natural state. It is what’s left when you strip away man-made things like governments, laws and taxes. It is the unspoilt landscape on which everything else is constructed. As such, it doesn’t need to justify its existence; it is those who want to build on it that must do the explaining. This is why the egalitarians’ moral position is not as clear-cut as they like to imagine.
The distress caused by inequality is your problem. It’s a psychological quirk that you can succumb to or challenge. Either way, it’s a personal issue that shouldn’t adversely affect the people around you. My freedom, by contrast, does nothing to affect your circumstances. However I choose to use it, it isn’t going to deny you money or opportunity. Therefore, to put your desire to avoid the angst of inequality above my personal sovereignty is inescapably egotistical and authoritarian.
This is the aspect of equality that egalitarians just don’t get. Far from cherishing freedom, they see it as the root of inequality. And since inequality troubles them more than a lack of freedom, they see no problem in compromising freedom in the pursuit of a more equal society. The fact that most egalitarians claim to represent the interests of others makes no difference. The irrational feelings of one group, no matter how large, should not trump the tangible concerns of another.
The only rational basis for egalitarianism would be if there were a fixed amount of wealth in society, that must be divided between the population. But that’s not how free economies work. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, it is not the case that if I have too many slices of pizza, you have to eat the box. The economy is expandable and, in any practical sense, limitless. The more of us who pull our weight and add to the aggregate wealth, the better-off we will all be.
If we focus instead on redistributing wealth to bring about greater equality, we remove the incentives for people at every level to do their best. Why bother trying if you cannot reap what you sow, or if you can reap what other people sow? Once you cut the ties between incentive and reward, you get less of either. Inevitably this will leave many people worse off than they would be under a less egalitarian system. How long is it before the pain caused by a loss of prosperity and opportunity outweighs that caused by living in an unequal society? Sooner than you think, I’d say.