Inequality Talk Is About Grabbing

The US today has about 425 billionaires, over 1/3 of the world’s total. Many folks say these billionaires are unfairly unequal, and so we should tax them lots more.

People usually become billionaires via having “super-powers,” i.e., very unusual abilities, at least within some context. But what if most billionaires had super-powers of the traditional comic book sort, like x-ray vision or an ability to fly, etc.? That is, what if people with physical super-powers earned billions in the labor market by selling the use of these powers? Would folks be just as eager to tax them to reduce unfair inequality?

My guess is no, most would be less eager to tax billionaires with physical super-powers. And I offer this prediction as a test of my favored theory of expressed inequality concerns: that inequality talk is usually a covert way of coordinating who to maybe grab stuff from. Let me explain.

As I’ve discussed before, while people usually justify their inequality concerns by noting that inequality can make lower folks feel bad, that justification can apply equally to a great many sorts of inequality. Yet concern is actually only voiced about a very particular sort: financial inequality at a given time between the families of a nation. The puzzle in need of explaining is: why is so little concern expressed about all the other sorts of inequality?

My favored theory is an application of homo hypocritus: our forager ancestors developed the ability to express and enforce social norms, and then developed rich and subtle abilities to coordinate to evade those norms. One of those norms was that foragers weren’t supposed to grab stuff from each other just because they wanted the stuff, or just because that stuff was easy to grab. But they did have norms favoring sharing and equal treatment, and so it was ok to talk about who might be violating such norms, and what punishments to apply to violators.

But they all knew, at least subconsciously, that some groups would be quite effective at retaliating against such suggestions. The accused might physically resist the attempted punishment, or might retaliate with contrary accusations. So foragers needed ways not only to overtly accuse folks of violating norms, and to officially propose to take stuff away as punishment, but also to covertly discuss who might have especially nice stuff to take, and who they could most easily get away with grabbing from.

I suggest that most talk about the problems of inequality actually invokes this ancient hypocritical ability to covertly discuss where to find lots of nice easy-to-grab stuff. We don’t discuss inequalities across time, because it is hard to grab much more than we do from the past or the future. We don’t much discuss the inequality of rich foreigners, because it is much harder to grab their stuff. We don’t much discuss inequality of those with unusual artistic abilities or sexual attractiveness, because we can’t directly grab their advantages and while we might try to grab their material goods to compensate, they don’t have that much, and the grabbing would be hard. (Also, such folks have more social status to resist with. For foragers, status counted lots more than material goods for influence.)

A few people within our nation who each have lots and lots of material goods, however, seem to make a great target for grabbing. So people discover they have a deep moral concern about that particular inequality, and ponder what oh what could we possibly do to rectify this situation? Anyone have an idea? Anyone?

But if those few very rich folks had real physical super-powers, we would be a lot more afraid of their simple physical retaliation. They might be very effective at physically resisting our attempts to take their stuff. So somehow, conveniently, we just wouldn’t find that their unequal wealth evoked as much deeply felt important-social-issue-in-need-of-discussing moral concern in us. Because, I hypothesize, in reality those feelings only arise as a cover to excuse our grabbing, when such grabs seem worth the bother.

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