What’s so Great about Equality?
I just started reading French economics professor Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology. You may recall Professor Piketty’s earlier book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a six-hundred-page tome on the increasing income inequality that is afflicting countries around the globe. It was a New York Times bestseller that was praised by progressive economists but was probably not actually read by many people. His new book continues his campaign against rising income inequality.
I have just started to read the book and will give you a full report later on (it is an even heavier tome than his first book at over eight-hundred pages), but his opening statement revealed much about his motivations for writing this book. He said,
“Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.”
Wow. It’s as if the only purpose of a society is to create equality. Nothing else matters. He goes on to say that societies create ideologies to legitimize inequality, implying that the natural state of mankind is equality and that oppressors create these myths in order to exploit or take advantage of other people.
But people are obviously different. Why should people’s incomes be equal if different people have different skills and abilities to meet the needs of society. These differences arise at conception. Some people are born good looking, intelligent and healthy. Others are born homely, unintelligent and sickly. Some can contribute to society and some are a drag on society. Why should they be compensated equally or anything approximating equally?
Professor Piketty goes on to elaborate all the things that societies create in order to justify the exploitation of people and make them unequal. The one thing that he does not do is to justify why people should be equal. To me, this would be the logical starting point. But the need for equality is buried so deeply in his psyche that he cannot contemplate the possibility that inequality might be the natural state of things. This tells us more about Piketty than it does about economics.
New York University psychology professor Jonathan Haidt explained in his book, The Righteous Mind, that his research discovered that the moral axes of liberals (actually progressives rather than classic liberals) was concentrated on the care versus harm axis and the fairness versus cheating axis, compared to conservatives that also valued the moral axes of loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, sanctity versus degradation and liberty versus oppression. In fact, he wrote that progressives are essentially blind to the other moral axes.
This describes Professor Piketty to a tee. He does not feel the need to justify equality because equality is morally good. Further, he believes that equality is the only moral imperative and that other moral choices are only fictions (or as he says ideologies) used to justify the exploitation of people.
But you do need to justify income equality. According to Piketty’s logic, a house painter should be paid the same as Picasso. Actually, the house painter should be paid more because it takes longer to paint a house that it took Picasso to create most of his paintings. Likewise, Steve Jobs should have been paid the same as an ordinary programmer (or the night cleaning staff, for that matter). And while the cleaning staff do important work (it might even be called essential), many, many people can perform those cleaning functions while there are very few people like Picasso or Steve Jobs.
It would have been interesting to see how Professor Piketty would justify equality. Professor Richard Wrangham, a Harvard biological anthropologist, wrote in his book, The Goodness Paradox, that human hunter/gatherers were not naturally egalitarian, and that violence was required to make them so. My initial review of Capital and Ideology shows that Professor Piketty doesn’t address this important issue that implies equality can only be achieved through force and coercion. I will let you know if I find out otherwise.
Professor Piketty also writes that private property is a principal cause of inequality (our egalitarian hunter/gatherer ancestors had virtually no private property). He wants to rid the world of private property so that we can all be equal. I will have to read the rest of the book to find out how he is going to do that. I will soon let you know the full scope of his vision for the future. But I am pretty sure that it is not going to look like Denmark.
You might wonder why I am critiquing Professor Piketty’s book now instead of waiting until I finished reading it. Well, let me tell you. Last week, presidential candidate Joe Biden announced that his “unity task force” had come out with the platform recommendations for his campaign. The unity task force was comprised of Democrats selected by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and it is safe to assume that the more than one hundred pages of recommendations are positioned to the left of Biden’s supposedly traditionally Democratic position.
I bring that up because the principal economic advisors to the campaigns of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, students and collaborators of Thomas Piketty. This group of economists do not think that wealth can be justified and that profits are only derived from exploitation. So, to them, not only are high taxes on the wealthy justified, but confiscatory taxes are necessary to bring the wealthy low in order to reduce their influence and power.
I am reminded of George Orwell, best known for his works 1984 and Animal Farm, who wrote in a book for the Left Book Club called The Road to Wigan Pier, “The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to regard the book-trained Socialist as a bloodless creature entirely incapable of emotion. Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred—a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacuo hatred—against the exploiters.”
This is also an apt description of Piketty as well who wrote while critiquing the downfall of the Soviet Union, “It is easy to proclaim the abolition of private property and bourgeois democracy but more complex (as well as more interesting) to draw up detailed blueprints for an alternative political, social and economic system.” Don’t worry you poor working stiffs out there, Piketty (as well as Saez and Zucman) are creating detailed blueprints to take care of you.
Bernie has already said that the recommendations of the unity task force are a compromise in order to get rid of President Trump and do not go far enough. With Saez and Zucman advising him I have no doubt that he has much more progressive recommendations that will await Joe Biden’s successor. Biden’s much-awaited vice-presidential pick will be a good indicator of the future path of the Democratic party. He has already indicated that it will be a woman. She will likely be a woman of color in order to placate the Black Lives Matter movement and to keep them from continuing their protests during the campaign. She will also be progressive, in order to keep antifa and the cancel culture kids from rioting during the campaign. They may protest and riot anyway. Who knows?
If Piketty, Saez and Zucman are to be the economic advisors to future presidents, your life is about to change dramatically. Just keep in mind that a socialist government has never willingly given up power.