The argument against inequality as such

So I wrote something in The Atlantic today. The basic argument is that, under certain conditions, it might make sense to make the poor poorer provided that you make the rich much less rich. Here is how that argument can work.

Assume that a huge income gap, in and of itself, harms individual well-being. The implication then is that reducing such a gap would improve individual well-being. Let’s say cutting down a big income gap by X improves well-being by 1000 points.

Now assume that having more stuff improves well-being. The implication is that reducing the amount of stuff people have will harm their well-being. Let’s say that the way we cut down a big income gap by X causes everyone, the poor included, to have less stuff. Now let’s say that their well-being is harmed by having less stuff by 700 points.

From here you can see how the argument goes. If cutting down the income gap improves well-being by 1000 points, and causing everyone to have less stuff harms well-being by 700 points, then 1000 – 700 reveals a net well-being gain of 300 points. So, in theory, you could support making the poor poorer provided that you make the rich (dramatically) less rich. The gains to reducing inequality as such might outpace the losses of having less stuff. And this might hold across income groups as well. Whether it does in fact will turn on empirical assessments that I wont go into here. But the point is that provided the empirics line up the right way (and they plausibly might, and there is some evidence to suggest they do), this argument will clear at least a utilitarian calculus.

As I said in my original piece, this is not actually something we have to worry ourselves with. We can reduce inequality as such by moving money from the top part of the distribution to the lower part of the distribution. This would make the poor richer and the rich poorer, and reduce overall inequality. That is obviously what I think we should do, but it is interesting as a thought experiment to imagine how we might actually support making the poor poorer provided the rich were less rich. In countries that are already quite rich, it is not as preposterous a notion as it might seem. There are non-material harms to inequality, and they could be an even bigger deal than the material harms of making everyone poorer, under certain conditions.