Sunday, January 27, 2019

What’s so Wrong with Vast Inequality?

Oxfam reports that the richest 26 billionaires currently own $1.4 trillion, which is as much as 3.8 billion of the world’s poorest people. So a couple dozen have as much as half of humanity. Interestingly, only liberals, progressives, and socialists are horrified by such vast economic inequality, whereas conservatives and libertarians are more inclined to celebrate it. Why is that so?

The Injustice of Staggering Economic Inequality

You’d think one of the more obvious objections to the inequality would be just as compelling to those on the right as to those on the left. The objection is just that no one ever earns billions of dollars, so the inequality is always actually unjust. Granted, I can conceive of a world in which someone deserves billions of dollars whereas most other people deserve to be poor. Suppose someone invents the cure for cancer all by himself, having relied on help neither from the government nor from colleagues or from Lady Luck (such as from having inherited genes that make this inventor a genius), and suppose that the cure goes on singlehandedly to change the world for the better for centuries. Suppose also that most other people accomplish nothing of comparable significance. In that case, because of the colossal difference in the achievements, the inventor might deserve to live as a god while the majority should only languish until they die.

Notice, though, that even in this imaginary scenario, we run up against the contradiction that no one who would invent the cure for cancer and distribute it to humanity’s benefit (by selling it at an affordable price) would choose to horde those billions of dollars rather than use them to further aid the very people he meant to serve with the cure. Only if keeping the wealth were needed to fund additional breakthroughs could we imagine the genius choosing to keep his wealth, although even here the inequality would have to be temporary since the additional breakthroughs would eventually have to benefit the rest of the world in such a way that the masses are dragged out of poverty. For suppose this genius invents only inconsequential advances that don’t affect the quality of life of most of the world’s population. Suppose that after curing cancer, he creates only the equivalents of fidget spinners. Then we’d be right to think the genius has squandered his wealth and no longer deserves it, that his wealth has corrupted him so that he’s no longer interested in substantially improving the world. The scenario would no longer be incoherent only because the genius’ character would have shifted from being heroic to parasitic.   

In any case, in the real world there’s never such stark, asymmetric heroism, contrary to egotists like Ayn Rand. Wealth is either old or new, as they say, meaning it’s inherited or personally acquired. If it’s old, the wealth is tainted by the palpable injustices perpetrated in the less progressive past. For example, George W. Bush’s family money derives in part from his grandfather’s connection to a German banker, Fritz Thyssen, who helped Hitler rise to power. Men’s old money generally is attributable to patriarchal advantages, and white men’s to past imperialism and slave-holding from Europe.

If the wealthy raise themselves from having no money to having billions of dollars, that wealth is bound to be acquired immorally even when no laws are broken. Two frequent immoralities stand out: the fraud inherent in the propaganda that sells most products and the devastation of the biosphere caused by most business practices. Beyond those two, there’s the monopolist’s dynamic whereby the rising company lies or undercuts competitors to gain an edge that puts the rivals out of business (typically by resorting to slave labour), whereupon the monopolist exploits the situation by lowering the quality of its products and gouging the consumers. See, for example, Walmart and Amazon. This kind of wealth is obtained by a war of attrition, and because the motive isn’t saintly (as it’s supposed to be in the above thought experiment), if the scheme works, the dominance corrupts the executives and the shareholders, leading to a degenerative system rather than elevating the living standard.

In addition, there are the smaller-scale, but no less nauseating abuses caused by the typical vices of highly ambitious individuals. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s double-crossing of his early partner was dramatized in the movie The Social Network, while Steve Jobs’ neglect of his daughter was highlighted in the 2017 film Steve Jobs. Oprah Winfrey’s wealth is sustained by a feel-good New Thought cult of personality that distracts the middle class from the damages wrought by unfettered American capitalism. The Sackler family took billions in profits by pushing to addict millions of Americans to OxyContin. Marvel’s Stan Lee was infamous for exploiting Jack Kirby. Then there’s the vice of laziness, which accounts for the unflattering principle uncovered by the economist Thomas Piketty, as summarized by a Guardian article: “in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth.” This means the rich get richer just by reaping returns on their prior investments or by receiving rents, without their having to do any additional work.

Even if we lay morality aside, no boon to humanity ever derives solely from the mind of a solitary genius, contrary to certain Enlightenment myths. As long as the creative genius wasn’t raised in a cave but lives in society, his or her ideas invariably borrow from the culture, not to mention from the peace secured by the government and by the tax payers and their collective will to cooperate. The question becomes, then, not whether to tax or to redistribute concentrations of wealth, but how much to do so, and because the wealthy can afford the best lawyers and lobbyists to find tax loopholes or even to help write the tax code to their exclusive benefit, the answer seems to be: more than is ever typically feasible.

I say that these points about justice and morality should appeal to conservatives, especially to the religious variety that preaches God’s commandment to be compassionate. But in practice, conservatives look for excuses to avoid condemning severe economic inequality. They’ll side with libertarians or market fundamentalists who identify God with the “free market” so that whatever happens in business is sanctified. As long as billionaires don’t violate anyone’s private property rights, theirs shouldn’t be violated in turn—not even if the fruits of their success are larger than anyone could possibly eat and hundreds of millions of people are impoverished. If business is a competition, there are bound to be winners and losers, and to the victor go the spoils.

Inequality and Animality

In any case, there’s a hidden reason for the difference in attitudes towards the fact that a handful of persons owns as much as half of humanity. Regardless of how the wealth is acquired or the poverty is inflicted, what the juxtaposition between the towering wealth of a select few and the poverty of the sprawling masses of humankind does is degrade our species. The inequality reveals our animal longing, by hook or by crook and with stupendous irony, to exhibit the levels of our dominance hierarchies even as we reassure ourselves with fairytales about how as people we’re above such animalism. Just by keeping their wealth to themselves, even should they not carry out awe-inspiring acts of conspicuous consumption, the ambitious psychopaths in the rat race of big business or the carefree aristocrats who inherit ill-gotten gains obey the law of the jungle rather than any elevated human conceit.

The mere existence of a tiny population of billionaires compared to a sea of suffering humanity is proof that we are in fact animals governed by the primitive impulse to divide ourselves as seen fit by natural selection. Although a civilization no longer needs to isolate alpha males and their lieutenants from the lesser ranks, highlighting the fittest with crude displays of favouritism so the females know with whom to copulate to ensure the strength of future generations, we nevertheless excel at recreating barbaric social structures in our midst. From monarchies and feudalism to modern dictatorships and capitalist plutocracies, we separate the favoured few, bestowing heavenly privileges upon them while we collectively allow the majority of us to toil as lesser beings. With the exceptions of those who volunteer to help the poor, we don’t generally act as though we’re inspired by the myth of social progress. Instead, we settle for the status quo which almost always happens to be one in which mindless nature wins at the cost of our dignity as relatively enlightened creatures.

Liberals are appalled by economic inequality, then, because they at least pretend to take that myth seriously. Liberals like to think that democracy and capitalism represent social advances, that we can improve our quality of life and increase our freedom by rational planning and working together under the rule of humanitarian laws. What plutocracy (that is, kleptocracy) does, though, is shatter that illusion, by reminding us that we’re animals after all, that various natural forces and cycles manipulate us into degrading ourselves within the belly of the living-dead monstrosity which is the godless universe. To rationalize or to reinforce the contrast between the top one percent and the bottom fifty amounts to treachery against the human dream of transcending animal servitude to biological norms. By heaping unimaginable riches on a handful of unscrupulous, lucky, or slothful individuals, we only do as the apes and the wolves, the chickens and fish and all the other social animals do. We divide ourselves to signal our evolutionary status and we do so with no trace of ambiguity because our true masters that mustn’t be disappointed are evidently not some motley crew of despots or robber barons, but the same natural processes that enslave most creatures under the sun.

By contrast, conservatives are effectively apologists for just such processes, regardless of their temerity in spouting myths to the contrary. For all their high-flown talk of God and morality, honour and liberty, conservatives and libertarians are anarchists who seek to return us to slavery under jungle law. By advocating for the privatization of as many parts of the economy as possible, and even by adding self-serving complexity to certain laws such as the tax code, market fundamentalists mean to prevent us from cooperating to counter nature’s tendency to establish dominance hierarchies. When the “free market”—that is, the law of oligarchy, the creation of monopolies which corrupt the dominators, the boom-and-bust cycle, the decadence or degradation from obscene economic lopsidedness—wins, so does nature, and thus what conservatives conserve or go back to is godless, monstrous nature’s power over life. Conservatives are the world’s most fervent naturalists, since the effect of their treacherous policies, regardless of their theistic or moralistic rhetoric which philosophers are obliged to dismiss, is to tarnish our reputation as existential warriors transgressing natural law through a higher-order evolution of daring cultural ideals. Conservatives celebrate monarchies, dictatorships, and plutocracies in which the majority of the population withers in obscurity while a fraction of elites are heralded as gods, because conservatives are authoritarians who instinctively know where the true power lies. Hint: it’s not in the hands of an invisible sky god, but in nature’s capacity to humiliate all life by confining even sentient creatures to an exploitative life cycle that favours certain chemicals (the genetic code) for no reason.    

As existentialists who attempt to see through the charade of the perennial debate between liberals and conservatives, we should ask ourselves what’s more important, the genes and the environmental impacts that create living things for no greater good, on the one hand, or the resulting creatures that ironically can conceive of and attempt to fulfill just such a greater good, on the other. If we, the hosts of our genes and the relatively free, rational agents matter more than what are ultimately our monstrous parents (those being the amoral forces and processes that manage to assemble us thanks to what happens largely by chance in a universe with trillions of stars and years to spare), at a minimum we should be ashamed when we betray the fictions that matter most to us, because we’re free to make those fictions real. While liberal multimillionaires like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or Tony Blair take offense at grotesque inequality, they don’t typically do so for the deepest of existential reasons which I’ve just laid out, and so their progressive policies are swept aside by the weightier chutzpah of conservatives. The only force that can stop the tide of suffering from nature’s mindlessness is the madness of artistic inspiration. Thus, the enlightened proto-posthumans among us, who appreciate the existential stakes in all events will get creative in thwarting the gall of “conservative” kapos, the question always being how best to realize the miracle of some nonbestial mode of life.

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