Inequality Is Diversity

The Cambrian explosion … was the relatively rapid appearance, around 530 million years ago, of most major animal phyla, as demonstrated in the fossil record, accompanied by major diversification of organisms including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude (as defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species[4]) and the diversity of life began to resemble that of today. (more)

Now that humans have pioneered powerful innovations in law, tech, and organization, the obvious long-term future to expect is a diversity in use of those innovations: our descendants will radiate out in feature space to fill a wide range of niches, not only on Earth, but under and above it as well. Just as Cambrian explosion descendants shared common cell tech and structures, our descendants may mostly preserve some key features of human minds and societies far into the coming explosion. But that still leaves room for a vast diversity.

Since our society tends to give lip service to celebrating diversity, it can also give lip service to celebrating this future diversity. But humans also tend to be wary of inequality. Foragers were especially vigilant to prevent some of them from overtly dominating others, and while farming and industry cultures have led us to tolerate more inequalities, we aren’t especially happy about it.

This is a problem because it is very hard to imagine a Cambrian explosion level of diversity among our descendants without a lot more inequality. For plants or animals today, pick most any dimension along which you want to call some “better” than others, and you’ll find a wide variation — some are a lot better than others. Pretty much the only dimension in which all existing species are near “equal” is survival – all have survived. But of course they are a tiny fraction of winners vastly outnumbered by all the dead loser species.

Thus our descendants are likely to differ greatly from one another on most all imaginable dimensions, including dimensions of value, where some are called “better”. The only ways to prevent that is either to destroy all descendants, or for a central power to seize control of this process and impose a concept of equality favored by those who control it. And if you supported an attempt to seize central control on this basis, you’d risk folks with other agendas seizing control of this central power base.

While such a central control attempt might make sense someday, when we have learned better ways to coordinate, for now I think we have to accept that the future will come with both great diversity and great inequality – and that we can’t really have much diversity without a lot of inequality as well.

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  • http://kitikrit.wordpress.com/ abilio

    Blade Runner comes to my mind.

  • sa

    What you are referring to as inequality is just ecological specialization, no?

  • arch1

    I find this convincing. It therefore seems hugely important to improve the prospects for cooperation, tolerance, and maybe coordination among these increasingly diverse and increasingly unequal conscious beings.

  • Poelmo

    I expect anyone who agrees with this to donate their belongings to a billionaire and move to a slum. After all, if a lot of inequality is a good thing, we should all be doing our part to increase inequality, right? While we’re at it, why should billionaires be exempt from this duty? Maybe we should shake things up and hold a lottery: the winners get to be billionaires, the losers (or are they?) have to go live in slums.

    Seriously, Robin what have you been smoking? Your comparison is a) extremely far-fetched b) you are a hypocrite for not giving up your rightful share of the pie but expecting others to do just that and c) it is a fallacy to believe that improving things on average will improve things for everyone (if my head is in the oven and my ass in the freezer, I’m fine on average): you have to make things better for EVERYONE to give those at the bottom a reason to work with you.

    Why would the average human care about the wonders a future elite may enjoy, if the children of the average human won’t be among that elite? Why would he invest effort into this when he nor his descendants will ever get to enjoy the fruits of that labor?

    • KPres

      “I expect anyone who agrees with this to donate their belongings to a billionaire and move to a slum .After all, if a lot of inequality is a good thing, we should all be doing our part to increase inequality, right?”

      Only if you value the small increase in diversity that brings more than the large loss of personal wealth.

      “Why would he invest effort into this when he nor his descendants will ever get to enjoy the fruits of that labor?”

      How’s that?

      An increase in inequality doesn’t in any way imply that one’s own return on investment will be zero. Also, you present a false dichotomy between the elite and the non-elite. Inequality is a graduated stratification, with each person situated somewhere along a curve.

  • V

    For a sufficiently broad definition, ‘inequality’ is a synonym for ‘diversity’, making your argument an empty tautology.

    However, in the common usage in economic discourse, the term ‘inequality’ denotes diversity of wealth and/or income. You don’t put forward a good argument in favour of that form of diversity.

    The comparison with the Cambrian explosion, or with biological evolution in general, seems to be an example of the is-ought fallacy: biological evolution is an amoral, ateleological process, and there is no indication that we should try to reproduce it in the evolution of our social organisation.

    Moreover, biological features among conspecifics are typically distributed according to normal probability distributions, while wealth and income among humans follow power law distributions.
    While it could be argued that small income differences, consistent with a normal distribution, promote economic efficiency, the large differences associated with a power law distribution are more difficult to justify.
    (Risk aversion may mitigate this issue, but I don’t think it does to the extent that the underlying utility-from-wealth is normally distributed).

    • KPres

      “While it could be argued that small income differences, consistent with a normal distribution, promote economic efficiency, the large differences associated with a power law distribution are more difficult to justify.”

      It’s not difficult to justify at all once you distinguish between consumption and capital. Consumption inequality probably has a distribution similar to what you find in nature, since a person can only consume so much. Capital ownership/control clearly does not, but then again, there’s no reason it should. Ideally, all capital goods would be controlled or owned by those most capable of employing them efficiently, and that could very easily be a small group of people. In fact, every imaginable and mildly efficient system of social organization distributes control of capital goods to a small group of people.

      • V

        Are you suggesting that Britney Spears is better than the Average Joe at managing capital?

        Professional investors do exist, and most of them are employed by banks and investment funds, managing somebody else money.
        If one person keeps 1 million Euros in her bank account, does it generate any more efficiency than 100 people keeping 10000 Euros each in their bank accounts?

        Due to the sub-linearity of utility w.r.t. wealth, one rich person may be more willing to undertake high-risk investments than a group of individually less rich people of equal total wealth.

        If successful, these investments can generate positive externalities (technological development, for instance). But, being high-risk, they also have a non-negligible probability of failing, generating negative externalities (job losses, avalanche defaults, etc.). Some types high-risk investments (i.e. speculation on scarce commodities) typically generate negative externalities even when they succeed. Hence the net effect on the society of having a lot of high-risk investment can be well negative.

        Large income and wealth inequality is just an effect of how the economy works, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.

    • Dremora

      biological evolution is an amoral, ateleological process, and there is no indication that we should try to reproduce it in the evolution of our social organisation.

      Shhhhh… not so loud. Say it one more time, and the rationalists might actually update on the evidence, thereby losing their religion..

      • KPres

        What “evidence” did you have in mind, Dremora? Especially given that V doesn’t even appear to be making a proposition that could be tested. Are you claiming you have evidence that social change doesn’t happen through a process similar to natural selection? That would be interesting but I’m not holding my breath.

      • Dremora

        Of course the claim that

        biological evolution is an amoral, ateleological process

        is well-known to empirical science. Yet people use phrases like “the next step of evolution” as if it were a staircase to utopia or a “work in progress” toward “perfection”, including the transhumanist-types frequenting these blogs. See here for an example.

  • Saturos

    “… someday, when we have learned better ways to coordinate, …”

    Robin, do you think mind-reading is ever going to happen?

  • Jason

    It depends on what is being selected for … Money is a social construct created for a social purpose, much like, say, fantasy football scores or drivers license “points”. A desire for money diversity chooses a particular dimension that may or may not be correct. Maybe those who better choose football player stats should be selected.

    In the Cambrian explosion we got a diversity of animal forms that derived from a diversification of cell types (neurons, eyes, guts, Etc), but those diverse cells ceased to operate in competitive modes and in fact are the ultimate communist hierarchy q.v. Programmed cell death.

    We have a diversity of energy requirements in our bodies which could be analogous to money, but that diversity is strictly regulated and some elements of this diverse society kill themselves in order to further the society as a whole (the cells between your fingers in fetal development, or many many nerve cells in the growth and connection process).

  • Evan

    I am currently unequal with other people in ability to play the guitar, play football, write essays, program Java, organize an archive, and many other things. Some people are better at me than these things, some worse. It doesn’t bother me that much.

    People will always be unequal in abilities, simply because they enjoy doing some things more than others and hence hone skills in those things. But this isn’t a problem because people care less about the skills they don’t hone, so aren’t bothered by their inequality.

    What’s important is that people are fairly equal in their access to resources, so everyone can pursue the interests and hone the skills that are important to them. It’s okay to have diverse inequality in many different areas of life, as long as people are somewhat equal in that one crucial area. You can have diversity, but not have any morally relevant forms of inequality.

    Now, in the present day rich people produce large positive externalities, so there is a trade-off between equality of access to resources and absolute access to resources. Redistribution has the potential to make everyone poorer. But it might not always be that way.

    @Dremora

    Yet people use phrases like “the next step of evolution” as if it were a staircase to utopia or a “work in progress” toward “perfection”, including the transhumanist-types frequenting these blogs. See here for an example.

    I am a transhumanist sympathize with your frustration with these people. Since I was a child I have always known natural selection is an evil SOB, and get upset that some people think nothing bad will happen if we don’t make sure in the future it is forced towards humane values. I’m happy that you singled out that particular website, I’ve also been frustrated by how profoundly wrong the author is.

    • Konkvistador

      I think you need to read this. Tldr: I think our psychological drive for equality won’t be satisfied with material equality. I argue that people *actually* care about status inequality and don’t really care that much about material inequality.

      Now that I think about it I would argue that in politics in developed Western countries, appeals to equality have less and less to do with material equality.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Poelmo, I don’t think Robin was arguing that all inequality is in and of itself a good thing, or that maximum inequality is the ideal. He’s saying that a future explosion in diversity seems to inevitably entail inequality.

    V, the last paragraph of the post said that (apart from desirability) our ability to coordinate an outcome other than the mindless evolutionary one does not seem sufficient or on track to become so before a cambrian explosion occurs.

    • V

      If by ‘coordination’ you mean a straw man totalitarian communist government, as Hanson appears to refer to in the second last paragraph, then yes, we are probably unable to make that work properly.
      But assuming that this is the only possible alternative to a high financial inequality society is a false dichotomy.

      Anyway, I don’t buy the claim that there is any ‘Cambrian explosion’ around the corner: people here love to fantasise about brain emulation, but the reality is that brain scan technology is sci-fi, and we don’t have the computational power to emulate even a rat brain. Extrapolating Moore’s laws way past the physical limits of silicon integrated circuits manufactured by photolithography, seems unjustified.

    • Poelmo

      @TGGP

      Actually, Robin was saying economic inequality is a good thing and because he likened it to biological evolution he must have meant that more inequality is better (because more diversity is pretty much always better for evolution), he literally says:

      “This is a problem because it is very hard to imagine a Cambrian explosion level of diversity among our descendants without a lot more inequality”

      And that makes him a hypocrite because he’s not giving up anything himself to achieve more inequality, apparently, inequality is only a good thing when it’s other people that lose their wealth. I still believe the best way to find out if someone really believes in something is to ask them to lead by example. Would Robin Hanson support an anti-Buffett Rule (raising taxes on the middle class and lowering them on the rich) that would cost Robin Hanson money?

      He does also say that we need a lot of economic inequality to get a better future (better for some), but he doesn’t back that up. All he does is make a convenient, far-fetched analogy, convenient because he could also have chosen “diversity in all layers of scoiety” (which would mean equal opportunities and therefore a large measure of equality) instead of “diversity in income”, but the latter suits his political preferences better, so he went with that. He didn’t back his position up while I can provide a counter on the spot (strong economic inequality excludes a lot of potential talent from being put to good use because the poor majority would not be able to afford higher education).