Douglas Wilson’s Letter From Moscow

Envy Crackles

Douglas Wilson
Blog and Mablog
May 21, 2014

I recently raised a question in a Facebook thread that I wanted to expand on here. It has to do with the increasingly common idea that “inequality of income” is inherently a moral problem.

So here’s the question:
If you had a magic button in front of you which, if you pressed it, would result in all the poor people in the world being 5X better off than they are now, in real terms, but the price would be that the top 1% would be 100X times better off, would you press the button? Pressing the button would increase the inequality, but it would decrease everyone’s day-to-day income problems. Is the mere fact of the inequality a moral problem? Is the size of the gulf between rich and poor a moral problem?

There is another way of asking the question, only this way highlights the darkness of envy a little bit better. If you had a button in front of you that would cut the standard of living that poor people have by 50%, but would also cut the standard of living that the top 1% had by a much greater amount, thus reducing the inequality, would you press that button?

In case you hadn’t anticipated it, we do have a working version of this second button. It is called “government help.”

One of the central culprits in generating economic fallacies is the sin of envy. It is a creeping, cancerous wickedness. The questions given above are a litmus test for envy. If you would hesitate pressing the button in the first scenario, for even a moment, then you have discovered that your heart is a central part of the problem. And anyone who hesitates pressing the first button will end his course of economic damnation by insisting that hellish poverty for all is far to be preferred than inequitable wealth for all.

Now this is a thought experiment intended to reveal attitudes. In the thought experiment, we are assuming that nobody is getting ripped off or murdered in order to achieve these results. We are assuming no sweetheart deals with the White House. We are pretending that I am not a manufacturer of the new curly light bulbs lobbying Congress in order to make my old school Edisonian competition illegal. No dirty work.

I am also assuming that it would be genuine good economic news that doesn’t have a hidden price tag sprung on everyone five years down the road. In other words, we are simply talking about genuine good news for all that increases the inequality vs. genuine bad news for all that decreases it. Under those circumstances, what should we choose? We have isolated the factor we are testing for (inequality of income), and so what do we think about it?

I am not trying to square the circle here. There are rough approximations of these two kinds of societies on earth already, and if you are fleeing a refugee camp and are at the airport trying to decide which kind to go to, which kind do you go to? Do you go where you will be better off, and others will be way better off? Or do you go where everyone is equally miserable? If the latter, then why not just head back to the refugee camp?

The political philosopher John Rawls once mooted his version of the Golden Rule by telling us that we should envision the structure of our ideal society without knowing where we were going to be born into it. His version tended to flatten the inequities in society because your odds of being born a serf were very high, and your odds of being born the czar were low.

But like all zero sum thinking, this approach to cutting up the pie into very, very equal pieces tends to assume that the whole pie can only come in one size, and that this means that more for him automatically means less for somebody else. This is what always gives the “unfairness” argument what little traction it has.

But suppose I could create an ideal society where all the “serfs” were 5X better off than the average citizen today is, and the one percenters were demigods living in sky palaces. Now what?

To complain about such thought experiments as being “unrealistic” and that they fail to take into account the “unintended consequences,” is to miss the point. And the thought experiment does not reduce everyone to the level of materialistic cattle, wherein we are assuming that a man’s soul consists of the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15). Of course it does not. What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?

But if someone is insisting that we fix the spiritual problem caused by inequality of possessions, and I propose a means of addressing the problem, to the satisfaction of all the non-envious people in the room, it is odd if that person would then turn around and complain that I am reducing everyone to the status of mere owners of goods. If we are going to play that way, then what I should do is simply tell all the poor people to count it all joy when they meet various trials. Good for their souls.
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