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Capitalism has long been reviled because of the material inequality it is said to foster. In his essay, Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against the evils of market-coordinated cooperation:
[So long as men] undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse. But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.
In reality, this meant that — while individuals lived just on what they themselves could produce — they remained equally poor and in equally miserable squalor, since even the most industrious and talented can create little in isolation. But Rousseau didn’t stop there, arguing that when people began cooperating and expanding their efforts’ yields through the division of labor, slavery and misery became inevitable because unequal talents necessarily led to unequal results:
[T]he strongest did most work; the most skilful turned his labour to best account; the most ingenious devised methods of diminishing his labour: the husbandman wanted more iron, or the smith more corn, and, while both laboured equally, the one gained a great deal by his work, while the other could hardly support himself. Thus natural inequality unfolds itself insensibly with that of combination, and the difference between men, developed by their different circumstances, becomes more sensible and permanent in its effects, and begins to have an influence, in the same proportion, over the lot of individuals.
Defenders of the free market point out that labor-saving methods devised by “the most ingenious” are eventually employed to save the labor of the least ingenious. Even the poor in capitalist countries possess wealth unimaginable just a century ago: single-family homes, cars, refrigerators, computers, microwaves, TVs, DVD players, iPhones.
But the left dismisses any argument based on absolute wealth, countering that – however well off the poor are relative to long-dead royalty – their poverty relative to contemporaries causes them envy and deprives them of of happiness. The issue, then, is not material wealth, but mental health. In their telling, no one can be happy so long as anyone has more than they; as if only one human being on earth – the richest – could ever be truly happy.
If material difference was the only source of envy and dissatisfaction, happiness could be assured simply by redistributing whatever wealth exists. But unequal talents yield other inequities. Thomas Edison achieved not only wealth, but great fame from his light bulb and other life-enhancing inventions. Likewise, Jonas Salk was venerated for his discovery and development of an effective vaccine against polio. Norman Borlaug is revered as the father of the “Green Revolution,” a series of agricultural technology transfers to impoverished countries that is estimated to have saved over a billion people from starvation. Michael Jordan won adulation through his unmatched skill on the basketball court. In short, achievement yields rewards – unequal rewards – above and beyond material goods, and such inequality can lead to the same feelings of envy and inferiority that material inferiority can cause.
Some achievements are even due to mere luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because a petri dish he mistakenly left uncovered became contaminated with a mold that inhibited bacterial growth. How many people suffered a loss of self-esteem because of the unequal fame that Fleming won only through a happy accident?
The cause of equality requires that we sacrifice achievement on envy’s alter. Compassion for non-achievers such as the left demands only ensures that our lives will be lived in darkness, that our children will have to fight to breathe encased in iron lungs, and that countless souls be lost to infection and to lack of food. Equality commands that AIDS, cancer, and diabetes never be cured. Equality decrees that we watch untrained, untalented, non-athletic, short people struggle to put a ball through a hoop.
All this must be done lest those who cannot or will not achieve feel bad about themselves. Surely, this is little enough to ask.