The Moral Assumptions Within Income-Inequality Arguments

Throughout all the Sturm und Drang of the politics of wealth redistribution — intensified since the 2008 financial crisis — various groups assembled to review options to moderate the gap between rich and poor. Usually, such groups issue reports filled with dismal statistics and urgent demands for sweeping economic change, couched in language that suggests, but never justifies, a moral imperative to act.
Case in point: Laura Kiesel, writing for MainStreet, quotes a recent Oxfam International report alleging that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s wealthy now control 48 percent of the world’s wealth, and that the 85 wealthiest people on earth control as much wealth as the 3.5 billion people on the bottom end of the scale. Let us assume, prima facie, that the Oxfam International report is accurate. Many commentators immediately jump to the assertion that such an imbalance of wealth is politically and morally objectionable.
Question: Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
One common rhetorical strategy is to assert that a specific cohort of people find imbalance to be unfair. And if it’s unfair, then clearly it’s unethical. Recent polling suggests that Americans making above $70k favor redistribution methods by about 54 percent, but for households below $30k, the rate jumps to 74 percent. The less you have, the more you resent those who enjoy plenty, and the more you’re excused for your resentment. A delicious interplay of argumentum ad misericordiam and argumentum ad populum.
Resentment, though, isn’t a compelling moral justification for the confiscation of another’s assets. (Although, I suppose, it could be a perfectly valid political justification, depending on the health of the state.) We haven’t really gotten to the heart of the question, yet, so let’s come back to Oxfam. Kiesel’s article addressed the group’s “Seven Point Plan” to reduce income inequality by clamping down on tax dodging, offering free/universal health and education, shifting tax burdens from labor/consumption to wealth, moving toward so-called living wages, introducing equal-pay laws, guaranteeing a minimum basic income and agreeing to “a global goal to tackle inequality.”
The ideologically astute will no doubt observe that Oxfam’s laundry list hews astonishingly close to the default policy preferences of the Far Left and includes major policy points that aren’t central to the goal of significantly flattening the distribution curve. Either Oxfam and its coreligionists have cornered the market on the best way to make everyone’s life better, or they’re singing to the Marxist-Leninist choir from The Hymnal of the Righteous.
Righteous. A curious term. An interesting tidbit about moral philosophy: It’s the twin to aesthetics. Go to any Philosophy 101 textbook worth its salt and look at the various trees of specialization beneath philosophy as a discipline. You find theories of fact — metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc. — and theories of value. There are only two value theories in philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. The first addresses the question of what is right, and the second, what is beautiful. But their approaches are largely similar, and they deal with similar concerns about universality and interpretation.
Within the discipline of moral philosophy, several paradigms assert themselves. None really offers a compelling, immediately obvious justification for the assertion that income inequality is, ipso facto, a morally blameworthy scenario:

  • Divine Command: In the Christian world, the highest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In practice, this commandment preaches individual generosity to the poor and the avoidance of ostentatious consumption. Significantly, Biblical norms address an individual person’s responsibility to assist the poor, not a state’s obligation to prevent poverty. It’s a big leap to claim that Scriptural injunctions to alleviate the suffering of the least well-off requires the coercive power of government.
  • Natural Law: This approach is probably the least favorable to wealth distribution among all the main ethical paradigms.
  • Deontology: A good deontologist is a slave to duty. Although a person can assert some duty to help the poor, someone else can assert a counter-duty to maximize the efficiency of capital. Duty-based ethics is more about process and intent rather than outcome; a duty-based claim in favor of redistribution can be countered with a duty-based claim against it.
  • Consequentialism: In the mode of moral reasoning that elevates the outcome above all other considerations, the moral nod goes to the person who can make the most sound and convincing claim about what will follow if some action is or isn’t undertaken. As such, consequentialism itself — like deontology — is indifferent to the plight of the poor, except in those cases where a person advances an argument related to the poor that’s more compelling than the counter-argument.
  • Egoism: If you’re a “have not,” you want to become a “have;” if you’re a “have,” you want to avoid becoming a “have not.” Because the locus of moral reasoning is on the self, egoism does not readily admit to compromise positions for sweeping social issues.

So the point of the bullets, above, is to merely indicate that there’s no obvious, inherent moral imperative to support wealth redistribution. Many, many arguments pro and con litter the rhetorical landscape, some more convincing than others, but the fundamental point is that redistribution is a conclusion, not a premise, within the broader economic debate.
Question (again): Why is wealth imbalance morally objectionable?
Many worthy arguments both favor and oppose the significant redistribution of capital. I think, though, that the real question here isn’t moral, it’s aesthetic. People look at the juxtaposition of a wealthy person like Bill Gates or Carlos Slim or a prince of the Saudi royal family, relative to an emaciated child living in the slums of an Indian metropolis or in a camp in the East African desert, and find the comparison to be not beautiful.
It takes a callous soul to argue that it’s beautiful that some people live in palaces, dining on endangered species, while other people live in rape tents, dining on a few bugs and table scraps. Inequality, in its extremes, is ugly. And because it’s ugly, we are tempted to flip from the aesthetic to the ethical side of the philosophical coin and therefore conclude that it’s also inherently immoral. (Such a move is common: Think of how many book and movie villains aren’t just evil, they’re also deformed in some physical or psychological manner.)
The thing is, many ugly things are perfectly OK from an ethical standpoint. Controlled burns of national parks, for example. And many beautiful things are morally repugnant: Look at the formal photos of a child bride on her wedding day for a case study.
The moral dimension of wealth inequality cannot be trumped with the “ugly” card. We need reasonable debate to ensure that the self-righteousness that comes from privileging our moral positions as assumptions instead of arguments, yields to a degree of good-faith pragmatism that keeps us from demonizing the Other. Even when the Other is a guy worth billions of dollars and you’re left paying for a useless graduate degree in puppetry.
Because when your aesthetic sense tricks you into thinking that your moral preferences are normative, you won’t stop at income inequality. You will, like Oxfam International, subsume a whole list of policy preferences under the pristine banners of Progress, giving you the joy of righteousness while guaranteeing your efforts will come to naught.

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