A Defense of Inequality (The Age of Social Justice; the Generation of the Rule Enforcers; Inequality in the Age of Information)
- John Rawls argued that justice is the first virtue of society
- The 1960s witnessed the first stage of mass emancipation in the Western
(democratic) world. This stage was mainly about the
rights of the citizen, from the right to vote to the right to speak up
against the government. In the USA these rights also implied the right to
be treated equally if you have a black skin and the right to refuse to
fight in a war that you don't approve.
This stage was not ideological in nature and was largely driven by the
- The 1970s and 1980s in the West witnessed a progressive stage of mass
emancipation that had to do with wealth. The masses resented the wealth of
the rich and demanded income equality and equal opportunity.
Social justice (as in economic equality), not just democracy, became the dominant theme.
This stage was ideological in nature, largely dominated by principles of
Marxist inspiration, and driven by both the young (who, ironically,
didn't quite understand the meaning of Marxism) and the older working class.
- The 1990s and 2000s did not witness significant movements of
mass protest; and this was the first time in the century (a century that had
begun with workers' strikes and then continued with the fascist "marches").
This despite the fact that the wealth gap increased dramatically, a fact that
in theory should have increased, not decreased, the motivation to fight for
- This third stage is rather bizarre: after a Great Recession that was
caused by unbridled capitalism and that decimated the middle class, while
broke governments had to increase the costs of everything from health care
to education, the young generations of the West seem perfectly happy to be
- Violent crime has dropped by 32% since 1990 across the USA at the same time that income inequality peaked.
- The fact that people in developed countries don't protest as much as in the past must be interpreted as evidence that people are happier, even though they are poorer than ever as a percentage of global wealth.
- This apparently contradictory third stage can be explained by a change
in the way "equality" is perceived. Economic equality and social justice
have been decoupled. The equality that young people care about is not
economic: it is about equal access to information. You may be a lot poorer
than the richest man in the world, but, at the end of the day, you have
access to the same information on the Word-wide Web that he has, you can
watch the same television program and you can read the same newspaper.
Restated in terms of access to and freedom of information, equality has been largely achieved, and social classes have been abolished.
- Ditto for education, food, drinking water, health care: the difference between what the richest person can study, eat, drink and take as medicine and what ordinary families can study, eat, drink and take as medicine has actually never been so small.
- Inequality is also created by longevity. Elderly people have to spend more of their savings to stay alive and healthy instead of passing their savings on to their children. For rich families this makes little difference: more than enough is left for the children to enjoy a good start in life. But for the middle class it means that each generation restarts from zero, as they will inherit virtually nothing from their parents. Longevity contributes to economic inequality, but it can hardly be considered an evil by those who are penalized by it because they themselves will some day enjoy the benefit of longevity.
- Income is only one factor, and not even so clearly defined: people tend to compare themselves with the older generations around them, not with distant rich people, and people are indeed a lot better off than previous generations in most developed countries.
- Social justice (towards income equality) is, instead, becoming the theme of the developing world, that has just transitioned to democracy and therefore entered the second stage.
- "Social justice" means something else in the developed world, where income is no longer the defining factor of a family's life.
- However, tensions would be stronger in the developed world too without another parallel process. The developed world has been able to decouple economic equality and social justice by "brainwashing" generation after generation to believe that the system is fundamentally good, and that it guarantees economic equality "as long as" you work for it. After all, the very rich in the West are not children of very rich people. And the "brainwashing" includes the idea that income is not such an important factor after all.
- This "brainwashing" has generally had the side-effect of turning young generations from "rule breakers" (as they were in the previous stages) to "rule enforcers". It is the young, not the old, who firmly believe in following the rules, whether wearing a helmet when biking or filtering the water when drinking from a creek. (I don't wear a helmet when i bike and the vast majority of those who shout "Get a helmet!" are half my age).
- This "brainwashing" is a side-effect of more effective educational systems. Education has always been about shaping the minds of the citizens as much as about teaching them geography and arithmetics. In the developed world "education" extends to all facets of young life, and eventually produces a body of "rules" that must not only be obeyed but also enforced.
- There are also advantages to everybody that come from income inequality: inequality is a motivation to innovate.
- And, finally, there is human nature, which probably abhors equality even though it strives to achieve it: the most unhappy state is probably the state of total equality.
- In 2013 the Catholic Church elected Pope Francis I, who made income inequality a central theme of his papacy.
- In his 2014 address to the nation the president of the USA, Barack Obama, made income inequality a central theme of his second term.
- There are many discussions about poverty, how to define it and how to fight it. There are many discussions about inequality and its economic consequences. There are, instead, very few discussions about the state of being rich (there isn't even a definition, and there isn't even a word for it in the English language for the opposite of "poverty"). There is a well-defined "poverty line", but what is the equivalent for rich people, the "richness" line?
- Limitarianism is the principle according to which income inequality at some undefined point becomes immoral and/or counterproductive. But even the border between luxury and necessity is not well defined. Generally speaking, the luxuries of a generation become the necessities of the next generation (think of appliances, cars, air conditioning). Strictly speaking, nothing is necessary (we all have to die, after all) but, strictly speaking, everything is necessary too. A Ferrari may look like a luxury to those who don't own it, but important technological progress comes from sport cars that eventually will produce cheaper and better cars for everybody. Theoretical science, that costs a fortune in taxpayers money, may sound like a luxury to most ordinary families that struggle to make ends meet, but that science may eventually introduce new forms of energy or new materials that will greatly enhance the common good (and even reduce a family's monthly bills). If we had no rich art collectors, the arts would be funded only by governments and museums, which is the kind of state-controlled arts that totalitarian regimes advocate.
- It is debatable whether income inequality has reached an all-time high compared with previous decades and previous centuries, and what income inequality did in previous decades and centuries. The world is living one of its most peaceful and prosperous eras of all times, with fast growth and vastly improved living conditions in countries that used to starve not long ago. The relationship between income inequality and this unprecedented period of growth is not obvious.
- An absolute meritocracy in society is virtually impossible to implement unless we create of society of clones. The idea of limitarianism is that people should not be penalized for factors over which they have no control (such as the wealth of your parents and the neighborhood where you are born), but the main factors over which we have no control are our genes: your intelligence and many of your attitudes partly depend on your genes. Society routinely discriminates based on your genes. If it didn't (e.g., if companies weren't allowed to hire the smartest people), we would have a wildly unproductive society and probably a return to mass starvation (but, yes, full equality). For the same reason we accept that a sport team "discriminates" based on how fast people run or how tall they are: the whole point of a sport team is to win, not to lose.
More on Inequality in the Age of Information and why the masses accept inequality passively:
- Needs are only partially about physical survival. People have been rioting for food but also for salt, for land, for homes. People have been willing to die to create and defend a homeland. Needs are not always primary biological needs. Each historical period has its own consensus on what the basic needs are.
- The age of information assumes that information is good, and communication is also good. The staggering rate of creation of information is as much a consequence of that axiom as a consequence of technological progress. Information and communication are considered as vital as food and medicines.
- Hence the system justifies and encourages the existence of newspapers, radios, television and now social media.
- The underlying belief is that individuals are empowered by information, not by wealth.
- Economic and political liberties have been folded into information and communication liberties.
- Information exploded in the 2000s at virtually zero cost, therefore individuals feel increasingly empowered, regardless of income inequality.
- There is little inequality in the information that the poor and the rich can access. Most information is free and available to everybody online. The information that one can access on the most expensive smartphone is pretty much the same information that one can access on the cheapest desktop at the city library. Inequality is almost non-existent when it comes to information and communication. In fact, there is too much information for anybody to absorb.
- Information utopia has been achieved and even surpassed.
- By using technology to distribute information to the masses, the system precludes the emergence of an effective opposition.
- Information overload abolishes the quest for information utopia, and therefore abolishes the kind of utopian public opinion that was responsible for anti-establishment riots.
- In a sense, income inequality is presented by the establishment (and understood by the masses) as the price to pay for information utopia.
- In fact the younger generations live in a state of euphoria due to the progress of the information and communication utopias, and not in a state of desperation due to rising income inequality
- Indirectly, what has happened is that the media that are used by the masses as instruments of information are also used by the establishment as instruments of control, as information reduces (not increases) the motivation to revolt against the establishment.
- What is more likely to cause insurrection is not income inequality but a limitation of information.
- As more and more countries censor the Internet in one way or another, the Internet might get geographically partitioned. China has always controlled online content, to the extent of opting for a national search engine (Baidu) and national social media (Ozone, Weixin, Weibo); and all totalitarian regimes do to some extent. But it is not totalitarian regimes that are de facto introducing "doctored" versions of what is available online. Turkey started banning websites (including this one) in the mid 2000s. In 2013 France and Germany ordered Google to block Max Mosley images after Mosley sued. In 2010 an Italian court convicted three Google executives over a video posted by users on Google's social media. Nazist propaganda is illegal in Germany, and therefore search engines carefully remove. The study "Freedom on the Net 2013" found that Internet freedom declined in 34 out of 60 countries studied. The effect of these actions is to create different "Internets", or "splinternets". This is not new as in the past the world divided in geographic areas for videotapes (VHS and Betamax) and for DVDs (NTSC, PAL and SECAM).
- Each splinternet can only see part of the whole, but knows that there is more out there. And that's the kind of inequality that might trigger violent rebellion.