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Comparing Income & Sex Redistribution
Disclaimer: This post is on sensitive topics of sex and power. I try to make it clear when I make a claim; beware drawing indirect inferences; I rarely value signal.
As promised in my last post, I now return after a civility pause to the topic of comparing sex and income inequality and redistribution. This post will be unusually long, as I’m trying harder to speak carefully.
If a feature of individuals can be compared across individuals, and ranked, then we can say that some people have more of it than others. We can then talk about how equally or unequally this feature is distributed across a population. Some features are seen as good things, where most people like to have more of it, all else equal. And the values that people place on some good things exhibit diminishing marginal utility (DMU). That is, people put a higher value on getting a bit more of it when they don’t have much, relative to when they have more.
For good things, we usually seek policies (including informal social norms and formal programs by government, charities, and other organizations) that can raise its distribution, all else equal, and get more of it to more people. And for good things with DMU, unequal distributions are regrettable, all else equal, as any one unit is worth more to those who have less. Any policy that changes a distribution is by definition said to “redistribute” that thing. (If you doubt me, consult a dictionary.) A policy that reduces inequality more might be said to do “more” redistribution.
Of course all else is usually not equal. People vary in their ability to produce things, in the value they place on things, and in how much those people are valued by their society. Both the things that people value, and the arrangements that produce them, tend to be complex, multi-dimensional, and context-dependent. “Income” and “sex” are both labels that point to such complex, multi-dimensional and context-dependent good things. Both are usually produced via unique pairings, sex between a man and a woman, and income between an employer and an employee. The value of these pairings vary greatly across possible pairings, and also with a lot of other context.
For income, centuries of effort has resulted in several simple accounting methods by which we can define each person’s “income”, though we know that these measures miss a lot of what we care about. For example, regions vary in living expenses, people vary in their health-induced medical expenses, some jobs are easier and more enjoyable than others, some people have more expensive tastes than others, some assets are illiquid and unique, and there’s a key difference between what people own and what they consume. All these issues make it hard to say exactly who has more “income”.
This complexity makes it harder to analyze policies that influence income. Even so, when arguing about policy, people often mention income redistribution advantages or disadvantages of policies, such as regarding taxes, schools, medicine, housing, immigration, and much more. (Such policies usually let either side veto each particular employee-employer pairing.) Reducing income inequality is widely seen as a legitimate policy goal, even if people don’t agree on its priority relative to other goals. Income, and our related informal norms and formal policies, have changed greatly over the last few centuries, though less so over the last half century.
On sex, we might in principle compare individual counts of simple sex acts to get a rough indication of sex inequality, though we know that such a measure would miss a lot that matters. But even though sex is complex, hard to specify, and varied, it is also clearly important to many (both male and female). As is income. People often explicitly mention effects on sex when arguing for and against policies in many areas, such as marriage, prostitution, dating, birth control, nudity, pornography, drugs, child care, housing, and recreation. In the last half century, we’ve seen big changes in both informal norms and formal policies related to sex. People seem to be more sensitive today on the topic of policies related to sex, relative to those related to income, perhaps in part due to recent changes being bigger.
In my April 26 post, I noted that recently some people (self-labelled “incels”) have explicitly and publicly sought less sex inequality, a few via violence, and I wondered why they are so few relative to, and overlap so little with, those seeking less income inequality. I mentioned a few specific possible policies, such as cash transfers conditional on individual sex rates, legalized prostitution, and stronger support for monogamy and marriage. (I did not support or oppose any specific policies.)
But these were just examples; the fact that sex is so complex and integrated into so many social practices implies that a great many policy levers must exist. Who has how much sex with who is influenced by what we count as status and beauty, where people live, where and how they meet, how they talk to each other, what they can learn about each other, and especially by where and when they can talk and meet privately.
I’m far from the first person to consider such policies. Historically, societies have passed laws to discourage premarital and extramarital sex, and to limit how many wives or concubines each man could have. Informal gossip and propaganda has tried to lower the sex appeal of rakes, foreigners, and the promiscuous, and to raise that of soldiers. Policies have limited where and when people might meet privately, such as segregating student dorms by gender, and prohibiting unmarried couples from renting hotel rooms.
In my post, I mentioned a few other similarities between the two areas, including that some people have been willing to do and threaten violence to advocate for more of each kind of redistribution, and that other supporters like to remind people of this fact. Today I’ll further mention that a familiar list of factors contributes to both kinds of “poverty”, including race, class, intelligence, and disability. I’ll also mention that in both cases people who argue against more redistribution often blame the low skills and attitudes of the poor. They say that such poor don’t deserve help, and that helping them rewards their bad behavior.
During the French revolution, the main strategy used to achieve income redistribution was to kill the rich and take their stuff. This naturally outranged nearby rich, who sought to repress advocates of income redistribution. As recently as the 1960s and 70s in the US, “revolutionary” groups set off hundreds of bombs, killing many, in part to advocate for more income redistribution. I expect that those who opposed income redistribution sought to discredit such policies by pointing to the personal failings of such violent revolutionaries, arguing that low income wasn’t their problem.
Of course the fact that these areas of income and sex are similar in some ways does not imply that they are similar in all ways, nor that it couldn’t make sense to have different attitudes toward their inequalities. But asking why things that seem similar in some ways are not also similar in apparently-related ways is one of our most powerful tools for understanding variation in the world. So I thought it worth a try.
That same day, I tweeted a brief summary of my post. Some responded to that with outrage, claiming (quite falsely) that I say men have a right to rape women of their choosing, and that I advocate a Handmaid’s Tale system of rape and enslavement of women. Many others then agreed loudly and rudely with those responses, calling me a terrible person.
I’ve been tempted to blame people for not bothering to read my short simple post carefully enough. For example, my post was gender-neutral. But I have to admit that people seem to be prone to misread such things more generally. For example, college students consistently misread Plato’s Republic this way:
Student papers talk about how unfair and cruel it is for the male guardians to dictate who women can sleep with … and use the women like a harem. Which isn’t at all what the Republic says. … It says very clearly that guardians are both sexes. And it says clearly that men and women are lotteried the same. (And we discussed it in class!) (more)
Most who expressed outrage at my post, even most in the mass media, did not offer counter-arguments to my analogy. They were instead content to identify me with sex-poor people today willing to do or sympathize with violence in order to advocate for sex redistribution. Such ‘incel’ advocates were said to be personally deeply icky, and therefore so also were any policies they advocate, and also anyone like me who did not attack they and their policies immediately with extreme prejudice.
My tentative best guess explanation for why this was the main response is the following. Many have long argued for gender-related policy reforms based on the claim that there exist many explicitly and strongly women-hating men. Yet it is usually hard to clearly and publicly identify many such men. Gender-policy advocates were so happy to find another visible (if small) pool of men that they could tar with this label that they spoke of little else. Politics isn’t mainly about policy, after all.
Some did, however, address my comparison between sex and income inequality. Most of these said that income and sex are so obviously unrelated that it is ridiculous and deeply offensive to compare their inequality or redistribution. (And especially for a white man to talk about this in a neutral analytic style.)
They gave many reasons. Some said money (not income) is a simple, transactional, and inanimate commodity, while women are (of course) non-commodity autonomous adult humans with feelings and identity. Some said inequality only exists for commodities. Some said you can live without sex but not without income. Some said sex is obviously of vastly less importance than food, housing and school (!), and the fact that some are willing to sell sex for money shows that money matters far more. Some said that the purpose of redistribution is to reduce dominance, and that while people sometimes humble themselves and submit to dominance in order to gain income, they never do this to gain sex. Some said sex pairings, but not employment pairings, are very fragile and completely ruined by any attempts to influence it socially.
Some said poverty of income is due much more to structural institutional failings of our unfair social systems than to individual behavior, while sex poverty is mostly caused by anger, bad attitudes, entitlement, misogyny, and sexism in creeps and jerks; such people deserve no more than porn, masturbation, and sex between each other. Some said prostitution is too good for them, as that would be cruel to the prostitutes. Some suggested that my privileged position as a man disqualifies me from talking about sex with women. Others said I shouldn’t talk about sex redistribution unless I can point to a specific package of politically-feasible policies that I’d endorse.
To me, these mostly fail as a basis for treating income and sex inequality and redistribution differently. Biologically, sex seems just as important as survival, and many go to great lengths to pursue it, including paying high cash prices and submitting to dominance. In our rich society few are at risk of dying from starvation or exposure due to insufficient income. The personal failings of the income poor and the sex poor seem similarly plausible as causes of their poverty, and in both cases the personal failings of violent or loud advocates seems mostly irrelevant to good policy, as they are such a tiny fraction of the population.
Structural and institutional context seems influential for both sex and income, and such context can be unfair in both cases. The job pairings that produce most income today are fragile and complex, as are the sex pairings that make good sex. Neither are simple commodities, and both involve complex human choice. Just as good income policy should allow both employers and employees to veto particular parings, good sex policy should allow individuals to veto particular sex pairings. But a great many policy levers are consistent with such vetos.
My tentative best explanation for our different treatment of sex and income inequality is my favored explanation for most trends in values and attitudes over the last few centuries: increasing wealth has weakened the social pressures that turned foragers into farmers, and so we’ve been drifting back toward forager attitudes, at least outside work. Our distant forager ancestors did far more to redistribute material resources such as food than to redistribute sex. This made evolutionary sense: food variance killed, but sex variance apparently helped. By comparison with foragers, our recent farmer ancestors did less to redistribute material resources, and more to redistribute sex via promoting monogamous marriage.
In my next post I’ll respond specifically to nine mass media articles that mentioned me.
Added 5Oct 2021: Several years later, I return to this issue in responding to a book The Right to Sex.