In this article, I will argue through four different frameworks — natural rights, Marxism, social justice and intertemporal egalitarianism — why income inequality should be seen as a nonsense political issue, at least in the United States.
By exploring these perspectives, I hope to demonstrate 1) property rights are important; 2) self-professed “egalitarians” at college shouldn’t be listened to; 3) open borders are essential, even if this makes the middle class worse off; and 4) economic growth is a moral imperative. Ultimately, the public should be radically more open to immigration, and much less concerned with income inequality within the United States. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who argue against free trade and open borders should be looked at with moral horror.
I never want to hear you talk about income inequality again. Robert Nozick, a prominent 20th century philosopher, examines natural rights in his famous publication, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” Nozick argues we have limited obligations to each other. Our basic obligations are not to use force, fraud or theft against each other. Going beyond that, at least politically, begins to push us into a situation where we are unable to have our rights upheld. When government taxes us to try and push for optimal distributions of rights, in effect, they steal our time, money and freedom. As individual rational agents, we are entitled to our own lives. Insofar as we cooperate, and fail to violate other peoples’ rights, whatever income distribution we have is legitimate.
Applying this reasoning to borders is something many have trouble understanding. Land in the United States is not collectively owned; instead, it is owned by individuals. Insofar as I, an individual, own my property, I should be allowed to rent it to anyone, including people who currently live outside the country. Infringing on how I use my property is a violation of my rights. These rights also extend to business. If I choose to hire a recent immigrant who is not in a union, I am not violating the rights of anyone. When a union tries to pass laws that prevent me from being able to hire other people because of the possible harms to members, it effectively violates my rights. I’m entitled to whatever I and people who work with me agree upon. Because I’m free to use money how I want, income inequality is none of your business.
I never want to hear you talk about income inequality. A second criticism of income inequality comes from left-wing wunderkind and Marxist philosopher G.A Cohen. Cohen famously argues there’s something peculiar about rich egalitarians. He offers a few reasons why rich egalitarians are somewhat contradictory. If you’re rich, why not promote egalitarianism if you believe it?
If rich egalitarians should be obligated to donate their excess money, why should moderately rich egalitarians be left off the hook? They shouldn’t. Every college student and professor who protests inequality should take a hard look at themselves in the mirror. The average earning of a bachelor’s degree recipient is $68,000 a year, which puts them in the 93rd percentile worldwide. The typical associate degree graduate earns $49,000 a year, putting them in the 88th percentile globally. The average college professor makes $75,430 annually, falling into the 94th percentile globally — and enjoys one of the highest statuses in society.
Even assuming tough cases of low-income in college, such as with adjunct labor, exit options are significantly more plentiful than in most of the world. Bureau of Labor statistics show that in 2015, the unemployment rate in the U.S. for master’s degree holders was 2.4% and 1.7% for PhD holders. This should lead to some perspective. Arguing about the unfairness of the income distribution of the top 8 percent of society is like arguing over which royal gets the queen’s favor this week. These are ridiculous problems, when compared to actual indigence. People arguing for equality should donate almost all of their money. Most goods and services professed egalitarians whine about are not necessary for a fulfilling life — Netflix, Air Conditioning, Houses. College degree holders are the crème de la crème; not the bottom of the barrel. If self-professed egalitarians really cared about equality, they would give up their Starbucks and most of their retirement incomes to donate to the global poor. If socialists can’t live up to their own values, they shouldn’t lecture others to.
I never want to hear you talk about income inequality again. John Rawls, one of the most influential of philosophers in the 20th century, outlines the way to assess society from behind a “veil of ignorance.” Knowing nothing about one’s class, race, sex, natural talents, religious beliefs, individual goals, etc. would encourage two principles: (1) equal liberty for all and (2) that social and economic inequalities would be fine, so long as they were to the advantage of the least well-off.
No Americans are close to the least well-off in the world. Arguing over upper-class scraps obscures obvious truths. Much of the world is extremely poor. Even if policies like free trade, austerity and open borders destroy the American middle class (which they don’t end up doing), the gains to low-income countries around the world are significantly more important than the losses to Americans. Insofar as the welfare state stands in the way of open borders, the welfare state must go. Economic redistribution within countries has little effect on the poor compared to the gains of allowing more indigent people in. However, these gains are often concentrated at the bottom and the top. So long as this income inequality boosts the lowest incomes, there are no grounds to complain.
I never want to hear you talk about income inequality again. Tyler Cowen and Derek Parfit argue equality among men must be indifferent to space and time. If all men are born equal and ought to be treated equally, being born in a certain neighborhood or time period should have no effect on your fundamental humanity. Subsequently, it is important to invest in the future. The power of compound interest in investing can make the lives of future people a great deal better, with little cost to pay in the present.
Stopping climate change
, and encouraging economic growth are both high on the list of priorities , because the costs of acting now are significantly less expensive than waiting for a disaster in the future. Thus, income should primarily be focused on the idea of creating positive-sum investment as opposed to distributional concerns. The rich have a high marginal propensity to save, whereas many middle and lower-class people in the United States have a high propensity to consume. The important variable Cowen considers is a national savings rate, because the power of compound interest makes huge differences over time. Cowen asks us to consider a thought experiment in his book, “Stubborn Attachments.”
“In economics, there is at least one (hypothetical) example of a free lunch over time,” Cowen writes. “Economist Frank Knight wrote of the Crusonia plant, a mythical, automatically growing crop which creates more output each period… A Crusonia plant, measured in terms of its ability to produce apples, might grow five percent each year on net.”
The Crusonia plant Cowen refers to is our investment in the future. Many investments we make have positive effects, even if we make too few. Investments, almost by design, create income inequality, but ultimately raise overall incomes. Though Steve Jobs made a ton of money by creating the iPhone, we all benefit from Apple’s technological contributions to the world. Because this income inequality arises and improves everyone’s lot in life, there’s good reason to think ending it would involve destroying our Crusonia plants and making society worse off. Our worldwide GDP per capita is at $18,381. Destroying the incentive to invest wouldn’t result in institutions that encourage the wellbeing of future people.
I never want to hear you talk about income inequality again. Reflecting on the thoughts of these philosophers brings us to a couple startling conclusions. For one, anti-immigration policies and other attempts to maintain the high standard of U.S. living, such as maintaining a welfare state or forcefully excluding other people’s entry, violate people’s rights. Second, most egalitarians in college don’t live by their principles — if they did, they wouldn’t gripe over having the government pay off their student loans. Instead, their time and money should be spent helping those from unfortunate circumstances. Third, social justice ideology should avoid looking at middle-class issues and instead focus on the least well-off. Finally, economic growth plays an important role in promoting intertemporal justice and should be seen as a moral imperative.