The Material and Moral Poverty of Equality

 

imageCapitalism 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.

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  1. user_517406 Member
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Yes–equality rightly conceived under the law just means treating like things alike.  Once we figure that out, we can talk about the significance of the differences.  Somehow people don’t understand this simple concept these days.  They do understand, however, if you point out that blind people are not treated “equally” under the law when it comes to driving because their handicap affects their ability to drive, but they are treated “equally” when it comes to voting because blindness does not affect their ability to vote.  These days at the mere evocation of the word “equality” all rational thought ceases.

    • #1
  2. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @commonsensei

    Great post – food for thought in an overfed America.

    • #2
  3. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Wisdom, RF!

    • #3
  4. Limestone Cowboy Coolidge
    Limestone Cowboy
    @LimestoneCowboy

    Richard, an interesting post.

    Redistribution to eliminate equalty could not be a one time event. The more talented producers would  create additional new wealth, the less talented less new wealth,and  as ever, the dissolute would quickly squander what they had been given. Continuous redistribution would reduce or eliminate the incentive to improve, so you are surely correct that ultimately we would be equal in squalor.

    Richard Fulmer: Some achievements are even due to mere luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because he mistakenly left a petri dish uncovered and it 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?

    Minor quibble on this latter point. I’d argue that most achievements are due to large elements of luck and especially, good timing. The Wright brothers, the canonical inventors of the airplane were successful because they were thr first to assemble a lot of other people’s inventions (lighweight gasoline engines, airfoil wings etc) into a working system. Ditto with many different kind of drugs, lasik eye surgery etc.

    • #4
  5. user_278007 Member
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    LC,
    I’ll go you one better.  Instead of throwing the contaminated petri dish away, Fleming had the curiosity to ask why the bacteria had been killed near the mold and  the knowledge and persistence to discover the answer.  As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

    In the post I chalked up Fleming’s discovery to “luck” because that’s how someone envious of his fame would see it.

    • #5
  6. Ross C Member
    Ross C
    @RossC

    Good post, amazingly to this days Rousseau’s ideas reverberate around the world.  These ideas animate the Green movement and local sourcing movements.

    • #6
  7. Ross C Member
    Ross C
    @RossC

    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.

    The conservative argument here you make should be enough, but to take it a step further what the left is getting at is that human dignity (or even worth) is based largely if not solely on material equality.  This is a ridiculous idea of course and has led to untold suffering when the idea has gained traction.

    • #7
  8. user_86050 Member
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    I don’t know what most Leftists think when they rattle off ideological shibboleths, so when they shout “equality!” I don’t pay much attention.

    But conservatives shouldn’t abandon the concept of equality. Equality is a crucial component of our system. Maybe a better word for the concept is “parity,” like they say in the NFL. Parity is how the NFL tries to keep the league competitive, and since competition is essential to the league’s success, they try very hard to keep the teams on a mostly-even level.

    It pays to have as many people participating in the game as possible. Competition is the core of capitalism. What we don’t want is for large segments of the population to quit, and leave the game only to the richest and most powerful.

    Unfortunately, that is exactly what I think is happening to this country. People are dropping out of the workforce because they can’t compete. The available jobs require specialization and that, in turn, requires specialized education – which in turn is costing more and more. The remaining jobs are part-time because of Obamacare, and you can’t feed a family on part-time wages.

    On the other end, entrepreneurs are dropping out of the game because it costs too much to play. Setting up a new business, after regulations and trying to protect yourself legally, isn’t worth the risk.

    Our system is a game that fewer and fewer can afford to play.

    Leftists see the “inequality” and imagine it’s because of bigoted boogeymen; we can dismiss that simplistic view. But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard they’ve made it to play the game. We’ve got to make the economy more competitive.

    • #8
  9. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @GrannyDude

    KC Mulville:I don’t know what most Leftists think when they rattle off ideological shibboleths, so when they shout “equality!” I don’t pay much attention.

    But conservatives shouldn’t abandon the concept of equality. Equality is a crucial component of our system. Maybe a better word for the concept is “parity,” like they say in the NFL. Parity is how the NFL tries to keep the league competitive, and since competition is essential to the league’s success, they try very hard to keep the teams on a mostly-even level.

    It pays to have as many people participating in the game as possible. Competition is the core of capitalism. What we don’t want is for large segments of the population to quit, and leave the game only to the richest and most powerful.

    Unfortunately, that is exactly what I think is happening to this country. People are dropping out of the workforce because they can’t compete. The available jobs require specialization and that, in turn, requires specialized education – which in turn is costing more and more. The remaining jobs are part-time because of Obamacare, and you can’t feed a family on part-time wages.

    On the other end, entrepreneurs are dropping out of the game because it costs too much to play. Setting up a new business, after regulations and trying to protect yourself legally, isn’t worth the risk.

    Our system is a game that fewer and fewer can afford to play.

    Leftists see the “inequality” and imagine it’s because of bigoted boogeymen; we can dismiss that simplistic view. But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard they’ve made it to play the game. We’ve got to make the economy more competitive.

    Good OP, and I hope you guys keep commenting. This is a subject I am inarticulate about.

    KC—thank you!

    • #9
  10. Spin Member
    Spin
    @Spin

    But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard they’ve made it to play the game. We’ve got to make the economy more competitive.

    Hew, exactly, have conservatives made it hard to play the game?  Second, how would you suggest we make the economy more competitive?

    • #10
  11. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    KC Mulville:I don’t know what most Leftists think when they rattle off ideological shibboleths, so when they shout “equality!” I don’t pay much attention.

    But conservatives shouldn’t abandon the concept of equality. Equality is a crucial component of our system. Maybe a better word for the concept is “parity,” like they say in the NFL. Parity is how the NFL tries to keep the league competitive, and since competition is essential to the league’s success, they try very hard to keep the teams on a mostly-even level.

    It pays to have as many people participating in the game as possible. Competition is the core of capitalism. What we don’t want is for large segments of the population to quit, and leave the game only to the richest and most powerful.

    Unfortunately, that is exactly what I think is happening to this country. People are dropping out of the workforce because they can’t compete. The available jobs require specialization and that, in turn, requires specialized education – which in turn is costing more and more. The remaining jobs are part-time because of Obamacare, and you can’t feed a family on part-time wages.

    On the other end, entrepreneurs are dropping out of the game because it costs too much to play. Setting up a new business, after regulations and trying to protect yourself legally, isn’t worth the risk.

    Our system is a game that fewer and fewer can afford to play.

    Leftists see the “inequality” and imagine it’s because of bigoted boogeymen; we can dismiss that simplistic view. But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard they’ve made it to play the game. We’ve got to make the economy more competitive.

    I disagree, KC, People are dropping out of the workforce because there’s no point in competing.  At the entry level, more and more, it costs more to work than it does to stay home and wait for the check.  But you’re correct that, more and more, the hurdles one must clear even to enter the workforce in the first place are growing ever higher.

    But what have conservatives – true conservatives – done to make it harder to “play the game?”  Or, better, perhaps, to objectivise the idea – what has conservatism done?

    • #11
  12. Cordelia Member
    Cordelia
    @Cordelia

    From Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed”:

    “First there will be a drop in the standard of education, in learning and talent. A high level of learning and talent is accessible only to the very brainy. We must abolish the brainy! The brainy couldn’t be anything other than despots and have always brought more debauchery than good. We will execute or exile them. We will cut out Cicero’s tongue, gouge out Copernicus’s eyes, stone Shakespeare to death — that Shigalyovism! Slaves must be equal: freedom and equality have never yet existed without despotism, but here must be equality in the herd, that Shigalyovism!”

    • #12
  13. user_86050 Member
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Quietpi:

    KC Mulville:But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard they’ve made it to play the game.

    But what have conservatives – true conservatives – done to make it harder to “play the game?” Or, better, perhaps, to objectivise the idea – what has conservatism done?

    (and to Spin in #10)

    Sorry – my bad. When I said “they’ve made it,” I was thinking of “they”  in general, not conservatives. Sloppy phrasing.

    Revised: “But conservatives ought to be worried about inequality because it reveals how hard [it has become] to play the game.”

    • #13
  14. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Equality is an important and ever-present issue for conservatives.

    Many government policies, starting with education policies and practices, hamper the ability of individuals to reach their full potential.

    • #14
  15. user_278007 Member
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    Equality under the law is a conservative issue.  What the Left wants is equality of outcome.

    • #15
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Richard Fulmer:Equality under the law is a conservative issue. What the Left wants is equality of outcome.

    This is a huge topic. I admire you for bringing it up.

    :)

    I, as a person who believes there is a God and that he made all of the individuals around me and did so with some purpose for each one, find myself at odds with both the Democrats and Republicans on this, much to my surprise. The Democrat Party-run schools and social services don’t look at people that way. They see inferior people, and they write them off. They don’t even try to help them reach self-sufficiency, let alone self-actualization. The human-inferiority thing has given the left a million excuses to not even try. So the inequality starts in our schools and plays out as poverty. To quote our most-famous Republican, the hand the rocks the cradles shapes the nation.

    • #16
  17. user_278007 Member
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    MarciN,
    Compassion misapplied can destroy lives.  Feedback is an essential component of any activity. Imagine how dangerous the world would be for a person who had lost the ability to feel pain – as happens with certain forms of leprosy. Such a person could do serious damage to herself by continuing to walk on a badly sprained ankle or putting her hand on a hot stove without knowing it.  By rewarding people for not working, having children out of wedlock, taking drugs, or failing to take advantage of the schools to obtain at least a basic education, government creates a sort of moral leprosy; it weakens or destroys the feedback loops that link actions to consequences.

    • #17
  18. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Richard Fulmer:MarciN, Compassion misapplied can destroy lives. Feedback is an essential component of any activity. Imagine how dangerous the world would be for a person who had lost the ability to feel pain – as happens with certain forms of leprosy. Such a person could do serious damage to herself by continuing to walk on a badly sprained ankle or putting her hand on a hot stove without knowing it. By rewarding people for not working, having children out of wedlock, taking drugs, or failing to take advantage of the schools to obtain at least a basic education, government creates a sort of moral leprosy; it weakens or destroys the feedback loops that link actions to consequences.

    I agree on all points. Yes.

    Where I part company is that I blame the public schools and society at large for those tragic outcomes.

    Dependency is not what people seek. Not among the poor whom I’ve known.

    That is just my lonesome opinion.

    • #18
  19. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I agree with you about the feedback.

    However, the feedback our children get in schools is often wrong. I spent a lifetime with kids trying to get them to ignore the feedback they were getting from their tests and teachers. I used to point to Rush Limbaugh as a perfect example: he failed radio school. That has to be the greatest condemnation of education feedback I can think of. The way to know if you have talent is if you enjoy a particular subject, if you don’t even notice time passing when you are engrossed in it. That’s not an original thought–I got that out of a career-counseling book I worked on years ago, and it has stuck with me.

    My daughter once said to me when she was in high school, very profoundly, education teaches you about yourself. In other words, you find out what you are “good at” and what you’re not “good at.”

    And that’s how kids use it. At their peril sometimes.

    Let’s just look at your average small-town elementary school. If you ask parents who the good teachers are, they know right away. Suzie did well in math because she had a teacher who was great at explaining fractions last year. Little Jerry did not do well in chemistry because he had a poor science teacher last year.

    But what do Suzie, Jerry, and their teachers conclude: Suzie isn’t smart in math, and Jerry will never be a chemist.

    • #19
  20. user_241697 Member
    user_241697
    @FlaggTaylor

    Richard,

    The first passage you quote from Rousseau was one of three passages quoted by Adam Smith in a review essay he wrote for The Edinburgh Review. Rousseau’s influence on Smith and how Smith incorporated Rousseau’s concerns and responded to them is the subject of an excellent book by Dennis Rasmussen called The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith’s Response to Rousseau.

    • #20
  21. user_1030767 Member
    user_1030767
    @TheQuestion

    I can’t help but thinking, humans were all hunter gathering nomads for so long, tens of thousands of years longer than the few thousand years of recorded history we have.  They were all equal and all poor.  The poverty they lived in was almost impossible to escape, because there was no existing economy to build on.  But eventually, someone inventing farming, and techniques and tools to go along with it, and they learned to store and save food, and build permanent settlements, and then they built from there.  If you create something really useful, you likely will raise yourself up, but that will be trivial compared to how much you raise others up.   If no one is higher than anyone else, it follows that no one will be raising anyone else up either.

    • #21

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